mourning what someone should have been

Posted on Jun 24, 2011 in Family

I share a lot of stuff with you guys. On a lot of topics, I’m a completely open book. But I have also set up some things that are totally off-limits to BTHR. There are some major chunks of my life that never make it onto BTHR. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything or give an incomplete picture of my life, it’s just that, even though it may seem contradictory to my blog, I’m a pretty private person. One thing I love about blogging (and well, social media in general) is that I have the power to choose what is and isn’t out there. I think it is important for all my relationships (my marriage, my friends, my family) that some of my life stay private.

This all being said, one pretty major part of my life that I’ve been holding out on you for the entirety of this blog is the story of my grandparents. And now it is time to open up about it. You may, or may not, have noticed a glaring omission of any posts about my grandparents. It was on purpose. It’s a touchy subject with me and honestly, my entire family.

I avoided talking about it here because my grandmother (Memaw as she was known in my family) was still alive, but this past week—on my birthday in fact—she passed away after a very long battle with cancer. My Papaw had died more suddenly back in 2007. These were the only grandparents I’d ever known.

When forced to, I generally put my blog in the “healthy living” category. A lot of HL bloggers are all about workouts and food, but my definition of “healthy living” extends way past push-ups and oatmeal. I think to lead a healthy lifestyle we need to find balance in all areas of our life. Food, fitness, emotions, relationships, spirit. I try to touch on all of these things. A topic related to all of these things that is skipped over a lot by bloggers is death. We all deal with it. We’re all going to die (yes you, too).

There are a lot of emotions that go a long with death. People are open about their sadness. You are supposed to wear black. It’s okay to cry. People offer their condolences. But the truth is, when someone in your close circle dies, it is not as clean and easy as pulling out your little black dress and shedding some tears. Depending on your relationship with that person, you feel a whole range of emotions.

As I hinted at above, my relationship with both of my grandparents was very, very iffy. They were pretty typical grandparents when I was younger. Taking me camping in their RV. Buying me too much ice cream. Coming to my birthday parties. My Papaw was a very, very good man. He loved his wife, his son (my Dad) and his grandkids with all of his heart and soul. Somewhere inside, I believe my Memaw felt the same way, but she was terrible at showing it.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I realized that my childhood relationship with my Memaw was emotionally abusive. It’s hard to get into the mental state of putting your grandmother into the “abusive” box, but really that’s the best way to describe it. The good memories with my Memaw are few and far between. The things that stick out the most are the ones that (obviously) still have an effect on me today. Her offering to pay me $500 to lose 20 pounds when I was eight-years-old. Her telling me I wasn’t as pretty or “good” as my older (and much smaller) sisters. Her telling me how I’d never be better than her at anything. Her teaching me how I “had” to tie my t-shirts as to make my stomach not look so big so boys would like me. Or her handing me a Coke and saying I could only have four of those today because she didn’t want to make me fatter (the irony of that is that we didn’t have soft drinks at home, so her house was the only place I ever got them).

As a kid, I didn’t feel abused. Memaw was my grandma. A parent figure. She was always right and I was always wrong. But as an adult, I realize that a lot of my self-esteem issues that I’ve had to work so hard to fight for the past few years, originate from her inability to accept me for who I was (and the size I was).

On top of all of this, due to some mental health issues on her part, she decided to walk away from our family when I was 13 years old. My ever-devoted Papaw went with her, even though I’m sure it pained him more than I can even imagine to walk away from his son, grandkids and great-grandkids. Other than a singular birthday card every June (sent from Papaw, but signed with both names), I didn’t really speak with them or see them until I was 18 years old. Suddenly, they were back in my life as if nothing had happened and nothing had changed. I’m not sure what the motivator for the apprehensive, yet sudden, return to our lives, but I do know the damage had been done. When they left I was an awkward kid trying to figure out who I was. When they returned, I was a young, confident woman getting ready to head off to college. I was an entirely different person that they didn’t even know.

The abandonment issues on top of the emotional abuse made their return a tough pill to swallow. I was cordial. I was polite. I sent Christmas cards. But the truth is, they had no idea who I was anymore. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to let them in. Memaw was still emotionally abusive after her return to our lives. And I was, understandably, upset with Papaw for just up and leaving us. This kind off hesitant relationship continued on for many years. They met Babyface for the first time right after we were married in early 2007, and the first thing Memaw said to me was, ” How’d you get a guy as good-looking as that?” I put on a brave face and said, “Because I look like this!” and did a twirl. But really, inside, all the insecurities of being the fat, unaccepted granddaughter came raging back. I quickly realized that I didn’t need that toxicity in my life. Fortunately, I was no longer the eight-year-old little girl who had to listen to what she said. I was a successful, adult woman who could decide who was in my life and who wasn’t. And from then on kept both her and Papaw at an arm’s distance and honestly, I was a much happier person because of it.

Papaw died pretty suddenly in late 2007 (his health had been failing for years, but it was still unexpected) and when I first heard, I cried. And when I was at the viewing, I cried. And when I was at the burial, I cried. For the longest time, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was so upset, after all, I’d come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t really part of my life. I’d made that decision. It took me a few months to figure it out. I was mourning the person I wanted him to be. My older sisters had the grandfather you are supposed to have. They were in their early and mid 20s when him and Memaw left. They had their whole childhood of experience with him and Memaw before they walked out on the family. I did not. I saw my sisters sad and upset and talking about how great of a man he was. And I realized, I didn’t really even know him. I was angry. Pissed off. Livid. He was supposed to love me and yet he didn’t even let me know him. And because of that, I cried.

Now, with Memaw’s death, I’m feeling something totally and completely different. When Dad called and told me she had passed, I was overwhelmed with how indifferent I felt. It was almost as if I didn’t even know this person that had so dramatically affected my life. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t upset. It was just a matter-of-fact.

Then the relief set in. As cold-hearted and selfish as it sounds, the predominant emotion I’m feeling in the wake of my Memaw’s death is relief. Relief is considered a pretty nasty emotion when you are talking about death, but I really have no other way to phrase it. She was first diagnosed with cancer in Fall 2009. They gave her less than a year. She got increasingly more sick until last Fall, my parents had to pack up their house and move in with her. For nearly a year, my amazing, wonderful, caring parents have been her caretaker.

As much as I’d love this to be a singing memorial of Memaw’s positive qualities, it won’t be. That time my parents spent taking care of her was some of the absolute hardest our family has ever had to go through. Memaw’s harsh, stubborn and cold attitude grated on both my parents’ last nerve. She could never be left alone so most family events were either rushed through or only attended by one of my parents. My parents’ home, where our family get’s a lot of its strength, became abandoned and empty.

I’m not being completely selfish here. The relief was for everyone. Relief for my parents. Relief for my whole family. Relief for me. And of course, relief for Memaw. Memaw’s faith in God was very, very strong and she truly believed that she was leaving this Earth to be with Papaw (regardless of if I believe that, or any of us believe it, it was comforting to her). She was ready to go. She wanted to go. I think we were all ready for her to go.

Other than relief, I do feel a bit of what I felt with Papaw—sadness about what could have or should have been. My Mama is a grandmother to my nephew and nieces and is a remarkable one. She’s the type of grandmother that stories are written about. She bakes cookies with her grandkids. She has them over for sleep overs. She sends them stuffed bunnies on Easter. I see that and wish I had that kind of relationship with my Memaw. Is it possible to mourn a person for what they should have been? Or what you wanted them to be? Or what you needed them to be? I don’t really mourn Memaw the person, but I mourn the position of grandma (if that makes any sense).

I’ll be interested to see how I feel over the coming days. The abandonment, the emotional pain, and the imperfect relationship with my Memaw were all things of the past. As the years went by, I became more secure in my decision to not make her part of my life. I did the work over the past decade to really be emotionally content with our relationship or lack-thereof. I truly think I am “over” all the stuff that I associate with her. I had closure on our relationship even before her death. That being said, I fully expect her death to stir up and whole ton of emotions that I can’t foresee. For better or worse, our relationship is a part of who I am and that can’t meet its final end without some sort of emotional toll.

A couple of days out from her death, I am struggling with a bit of guilt. I should be sadder. I should be more upset. I shouldn’t feel relieved. People are giving my their condolences and telling me how sorry they are. How do I tell them the truth without sounding like a morbid, ungrateful person? So far, my go to response has been, “Thank you. We weren’t very close, so I’m fine, but thank you.”

Today is her viewing and tomorrow will be her burial. I’ll be surrounded by all my family. I’m expecting to be in much more of a support role than a mourner, but who knows how my emotions will decide to react.

Anyway, stay tuned later today for a guest post from someone who had a very, very different experience with the death of someone close to them. I think it is so important to share these stories. Learning to deal with death is part of living a healthy life.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing that.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I’ve dealt with death many times in my life, and I’m only 18. It’s a tricky, tricky thing… and in my experience, the hardest thing to “get over.”

    My younger brother died when I was 7, and he was 5. I still don’t feel like I ever accepted his death… and I’ve always felt guilty that I never really understood that he died for at least a year, the way I treated him was less-than-sisterly, I wasn’t supportive enough of my family because I thought the hospital was scary and boring.

    This post has helped immensely in realizing that everyone deals with death in his or her own way. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Cassie. I completely understand the concept of mourning what should have (or could have) been. My father died suddenly in 2004, just as I was starting to have a close relationship with him again. Long story, after divorce from my mom he eventually moved to FL while I lived in PA during 3rd grade and I saw him maybe once a year until I was 23. So we didn’t have much of a relationship – and even what we did have was rough due to his alcoholism & “do as I say, not as I do” attitude about life. Then I treated myself to a visit to FL for my 24th birthday and everything changed – he still had issues, but he introduced me to Diggity and I began seeing him once a month when I came to FL to spend time with Diggity and we began talking a lot more on the phone. He died three weeks after I moved to FL. I had such high hopes for what our relationship was going to become & all of that was taken away in the blink of an eye. So for me, while it was a totally different scenario, I was mourning the loss of a father that I was never very close with, and mourning the loss of what the relationship was blossoming into.

    Thank you again for sharing this deeply personal post. I wish you the best and continued strength during the days that lie ahead.

  4. Thank you for sharing that with us. It is healthy and normal to express and have the emotions that you do surrounding your grandparents, and a lot of people either keep similar feelings bottled up inside or do not understand the way they really effect them at the core level.

  5. Thank you for your honesty.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing that, Cassie. I have a very similar relationship with my grandparents. My one closest grandparent passed away 10 years ago and the remaining living grandparents are all people I really don’t want to have relationships with for a variety of reasons. I’m often sad about not having the kind of relationship your guest blogger described but I’m sure there’s lessons in all these experiences. Sending you and your family good thoughts for the funeral *hugs*

  7. *Hugs* My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  8. Your Memaw sounds a lot like my grandfather. He was always offering me and my sister money to lose weight, used the N word a lot and was generally pretty unloving. When describing him I don’t say he was mean, I just call him “old school”.

    He died when I was a freshman in high school. I remember crying when I first heard because that’s what you were supposed to do when someone died. I really wasn’t too upset about it. Sometimes I feel guilty that it’s how I feel, but really, he wasn’t the greatest guy.

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