In the therapy room recently, a client shared her experience of the loss of a close family member. She reported that her grief, raw and tender, felt especially intense because the relationship had not been optimum when the person had passed. Because of this, she also carries guilt, remorse, and regret, along with the heaviness of her grief.
As she spoke, I was reminded of the loss of my Nana several years ago. When it became apparent that Nana was falling ill and close to passing, I drove from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania to visit her. While we were out for lunch, my Nana – always keen, snarky, and sharp as a tack – persistently called me by someone else’s name. For the bulk of the visit, she didn’t know who I was or why we were eating together. She was confused, and even seemed nervous. I left the visit feeling profoundly sad and did not see my Nana alive again – she passed a month later.
I loved and respected my Nana deeply, and harbored no small amount of anger that my last memory of her felt so counter to my experience of her as a human. For a while, I regretted venturing down to Pennsylvania that last time, wishing to have the whole trip exorcised from my memory so my remembrance of my Nana wouldn’t be tainted. At her funeral, I didn’t go in to see her in her casket. I didn’t want to see her dead; I didn’t want to add that picture to my memory book.
I’ve thought a lot about my Nana’s passing, and that last visit, over the past few years, and I have concluded that it matters very little, if at all, what transpired in that last visit with my Nana. It is an infinitesimally tiny, and highly unrepresentative, fragment of a long and loving relationship. The ending to the story bears no resemblance to the whole, and it makes sense to me to believe that it is the whole thing that counts.
And the whole thing is this: Nana smiling and holding babies. The gentleness of her patience. Warm oatmeal with whole milk, butter, and sugar. Sharp wit and sarcasm. Shuffling Nana in and out of the pounding rain in Mexico, me on one arm and my best friend on the other. The smell of baking potato bread. Nana crying while watching my father sing. Hugging Nana after my grandfather’s passing. Laughter in the kitchen. Ropy, strong, agile hands the exact size of my own. Storytelling. Nana at my smallish makeshift wedding, in her purple sweater. Seeing everything, and calling it “bee-yooo-tee-full.” Shaping potato balls. Love large enough to create a family the size of a small army, in which Nana, at age100, knew everyone’s name.
My client and I concluded that, to honor her grief, it would be lovely for her to do something that recognizes the relationship she had, in its entirety, with her lost love one. She has the opportunity to celebrate the relationship, with all of its tenderness and difficulty and complexity, many years long, a lifetime of human connection. In stitching together the moments that make up something like love, she can touch on the pulse of the relationship – the whole thing – and hopefully give herself the grace and compassion to heal.