Today would have been my grandmother’s birthday. Hers was the first loss I really felt. The first death that made me feel like someone left a person-shaped hole in my life. I’d lost people before and I’ve lost people after but hers is probably still to this day the only loss I ever truly felt in this sort of “I wish you were here” kind of way – a thought that crosses my mind on multiple occasions, and forever will. Her absence in some really major life moments for me and in particular for my dad, my older sister and my two younger cousins is a real thing we talk about. Like a lot. Even though August this year marks the 10th anniversary of her death.
See, my grandmother had a presence. She was a truly remarkable woman. She made some difficult choices in order to live her life the way she wanted and she was not apologetic about it. In that sense she was the epitome of a feminist –not that she would ever put it in these words herself, but if you knew her full story I think you would agree with my choice of terminology too. She loved her children and defended them like a lioness. Her grandchildren were spoiled rotten and she loved letting us do and eat all the things our parents never wanted us to.
The thing about losing my grandmother is that she was such an opinionated, vibrant and absolutely hilarious person that death just didn’t suit her. I think her absence is felt so strongly partly because she was such a peculiar character. Her ways were so uniquely hers that to this day we very often fantasize about how she would react to specific situations in our lives. I can still hear the delightfully loud sound of her laughter like I heard it yesterday for the last time. They’re a very special set of memories and I don’t think you’re supposed to ever get over this kind of thing. And in my family, we didn’t.
Accepting that my grandmother had died was particularly hard for me. Not because it was easier for anyone else, but because I couldn’t be at her funeral. I got the call and I had nowhere to go and grief or say goodbye or anything. I had just moved back to Holland from Brazil. And in Brazil a funeral usually takes place within twenty-four hours of someone’s passing. So it’s basically: death, sitting around the coffin for an insane amount of hours in the world’s saddest room with crying people coming in and out non-stop, and then the burial. Done.
Death rituals have got to be the most awful things ever. Every single one of these things I ever attended made me a little sadder as a human in general. But I really wanted to go. I wanted to be there going through this awful ritual with everyone else. My conundrum at the time was that there was simply no way I could make it to Brazil in time to partake in any of these mourning activities. I would be spending a small fortune to go home only to miss the whole thing. Not going was a choice – on my parent’s part really because I was 16 at the time – that seemed logical. The last time I had seen her she was healthy as ever and she had gone into the hospital and died in a matter of four days. It was a very difficult set of emotions to process.
In my sociological theory class, years later, I finally heard something that seemed to make sense of my situation. Until that point, that entire semester I had had a hard time connecting with life at university. Each week we were discussing things like functionalism and phenomenology and there was something about this dense and rigid conceptualization of sociology as if it was some kind of ugly tree with different branches that never blossomed or touched that made me question my interest for sociology altogether. I vividly remember being pulled back into the discipline I love through the mention of a theory that rang so very true to my own experience with my grandma’s death. (The power of identification with sociological theory is truly a beautiful thing)
The theory in question was by this micro-sociologist guy whose work was about the importance of rituals and the functions that they fulfill for people – his name escapes me right this second, as he was only mentioned in passing. He figured the function of the funeral was to give the living an occasion to regroup. While culturally people tend to understand the funeral as something for the dead, it in actual fact is the first opportunity for those who are members of the social group(s) to which the dead had belonged to congregate without their presence. In feeling their absence together, they can begin to move forward in their new configuration. And this is when I realized that was the thing I didn’t get. That sort of “okay, we’re all here, she’s not, and that’s just how life is now” moment didn’t come to me until much much later. I went to Brazil a few months after and kept expecting her to pop up in all of the situations where she was supposed to be. My cousins and sister have expressed on many occasions how ‘lucky’ I am for not having been there. But I know better. And I have sociology on my side.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because of my grandma’s birthday which inevitably leads me to think of her death, but also because today a friend of my older sister’s lost his mother, only two weeks after losing his father. Losing a parent is earth-shattering at any age. Losing two in the space of a month is one of those truly brutal situations we hope to never go through. It actually got me thinking about how I have always been much more impacted by the idea of loss than by the idea of death. As a truly social being, I think that’s quite expected. I fear losing the people I love more than I fear not existing. Fair enough, it’s not like I’ll be around to deal with my own death or anything. Yet there’s something quite twisted in our individualistic society that has made other people’s deaths about us in another way. I’ve heard this many times and maybe you have too. The idea is that, supposedly, we feel saddened by someone else’s death because it means that if they can die, we can die. And maybe I just haven’t evolved into as much of an individualist but I deeply, deeply disagree.
As social beings that make up complex networks of affection and weak and strong ties and all sorts of intricate connections, the core people in our lives who we truly have a bond with have an irreplaceable quality. And maybe you don’t get to understand the weight of loss like that until you go through it, but hearing of someone else’s loss always causes me to panic a little. The way I see it, other people’s mortality is horrible because it simply is.