June 18, 2013

The beginning of grief

I have been very fortunate in my life that I have not often had to deal with the deaths of close family members. That is certainly not the case for many people.

The first major experience I had with death was my maternal grandfather. I was 10 when he was diagnosed with cancer at 62 (I think) and quickly deteriorated over the holiday season, and ultimately died a couple of days before Christmas. The experience was a lot of firsts: first extended time around a hospital, first time I remember seeing my mom cry (she's not much of a crier), first feelings of loss.

My mom was way overwhelmed at the time, of course. She had a one year old (who barely slept), a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old. Her beloved father was dying and she had to watch it happening, trying to be supportive of her mother and brothers and get to the hospital regularly despite all of us needing her time. (I get this more now than I ever did then!) It scared me to see her be vulnerable. I don't think I saw it much before then, which is why it has always stood out so clearly from that time.

In learning to deal with the onslaught of new emotions, I decided to follow whatever my dad was doing. It seemed easier than trying to jump into what my mom was doing. When we visited the hospital, I don't remember much. I know I would follow my dad out to the hallway and wait there while everyone else talked and said goodbyes and I love yous in the room. Plus it was nice to avoid seeing someone I love change so much physically and be in so much pain. I tried to emulate my dad's more passive and (in my understanding) less emotional response. I tried very hard not to cry, not to be needy.  In retrospect, my dad was probably pretty depressed at the time and therefore even less of an example for me to follow. But how do you realize that as a kid?

I didn't do much grieving for my grandpa at the time, avoiding as much talking and experiencing as possible. I might not even have gone to the funeral. That's sort of vague in my memory. One thing I took was a memory of someone telling me that my grandpa said he was ready to die, but regretted that he wouldn't get to see me grow up. Not even sure if that was real, but it has always meant a lot to me. And, of course, I wish he could have been around longer to be a part of our lives, too.

This set the tone for my few other experiences with death.

My paternal grandmother died when I was 19. She was 75 or so, I think. I was very, very close to her. We spent lots of time together and I believe we always were kind of alike. I admired her, loved her and loved to be with her. She's practically sainted in our family, but we probably can't say that because we aren't Catholic. :)

I was in my second semester away at college when she got sicker and it became clear that she might die soon. My family had been having a hard few years my last years of high school and into college. I didn't want to be home because I was so tired of the emotional drain. I got the call from my mom that my grandma had died. I mostly remember being numb. Maybe crying a little by myself.

When I arrived at the funeral home, I saw my grandma's body in the casket and had that jolt of revulsion, sadness, loss that hits when you see the shell of someone who meant so much to you and they are not there anymore. Shortly after that, my grandfather came in and I saw him stand over her body. They had been divorced for my whole life. Their contact was quite limited over the years. The look on his face when he saw the woman he had loved and lived with and experienced so much with, even if it was years before, I will never forget. It was full of regret (or some form of that), love and, I think, fear. Like looking at his own mortality.

The funeral was hard because I had determined to not deal with it. I've always hated crying and needing things. Especially in front of others. And I took it to extremes. The day of the funeral, I did everything I could to be distracted. I didn't even sit with my family during the service. Choosing instead to sit with my maternal cousin (so it wasn't his grandma who had died) in the back of the room. I looked away and desperately tried to ignore everything everyone said about my grandma and their feelings so it wouldn't break me. There was a part of me that knew too much emotion might cause a total breakdown.

That refusal to deal, to grieve, caused the whole grief process to linger for years and years. My sadness and sense of loss actually increased for a couple of years.

Less than a year after my grandma's death, my paternal grandfather died. To be blunt, I hated my grandfather. He was a bad person. He hurt his family, his friends and just about everyone else, in his dogged pursuit of his own desires. I knew he was a broken person with a rough, loveless upbringing. But it was hard to let that matter to me when the evidence of how he deeply wounded some of the people who have mattered most in my life (my dad, my grandma) and the stories of how he continued to victimize his friends and seemingly everyone else he came into contact with were practically impossible for a justice-minded girl like me to overlook.

God dealt with my hatred until I could finally say that I loved him, even though I never liked him. But I can say pretty honestly that I didn't feel much grief when he died. We had memorial service for him. I don't know if I ever even cried, unless maybe for my dad's loss of both his parents within a year.

And that was the last family loss I experienced. It was in the year 2000.

Until yesterday. Yesterday my dad's brother, my uncle, the only other member of the Schmitt family outside of my dad and us still living, died from a short but difficult...I don't know what to call it, "battle" isn't quite right, maybe "attack" of cancer.

And now I am going to, for the first time, really, experience grief. Let myself feel it and have it. It's time.


  1. Sarah, I'm so sorry for the pain you're experiencing right now.

    But I'm really proud of you for letting yourself experience it.

  2. So sorry for you and your family Sarah. We will keep you in our prayers.

  3. LOVE you so much Sarah. Thank you for sharing your journey so well, it shows how very far you have come! Tom LOVED you so, I know you are aware of that. We will all get through this together and hopefully one day be with Tom in heaven with Grandpa W and Grandma S who I'm sure have greeted him already :)
    Love Mom