What’s the answer when grief is all around us? How do we continue on while dealing with an overwhelming sense of loss?
My grandpas exited this world as they entered it: together. Born a week apart in October 1931, that is where much of the similarities stop. One grew up as a wealthy Catholic chevalier (knight) in Belgium whose youth was dominated by the Nazi invasion. The other spent his childhood in the Jewish ghetto of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, working his way up from poverty after his parents immigrated from Europe. One travelled to the US and spent five years waiting for the love of his life, my grandma, to realize she loved him too, and accept that he was willing to convert to Judaism, which meant a deep schism with much of my extended French family. The other didn’t have to wait that long, and met my nana on a blind date, one that she almost didn’t show up to. Their lives only crossed paths when my parents started dating in the fall of 1992, and ended after their divorce two decades later.
I love my family so much, but relationships are complicated, and most of my life has been accompanied by a lack of that nuclear, stable structure we learn about in textbooks and see in movies. That’s why, from the very beginning, it was made clear to me that the biggest and greatest blessing in my life was having four grandparents growing up. Few can say that, and I understand the fortune I have by being able to. And my grandpas in particular – well, any description of them could never encapsulate how special they were. The safety of their love, so pure and unadulterated, has always been a beacon of light I can turn to. My weekends growing up were split between sleepovers at Grandma and Bon Papa’s house in Short Hills, New Jersey on Saturdays, and Sunday afternoons in Manhattan at Nana and Grandpa’s, only three blocks away from my apartment. There were endless puzzles made, matzoh ball soups cooked, and, as I got older, lectures on how whatever guy I liked at the time was definitely not worth it because Grandpa didn’t approve. How much luckier could I have been?
Losing my grandpas within three weeks of each other this August, so close to their 90th birthdays, has been unspeakable grief. I don’t know how to express myself to those outside of my family. People offer their condolences for one grandfather, and my innate response is, “Thanks, but did you hear about the other one?” It is awful to the point of unbelievability. The only person who really understands is my sister, Julia, also hit with this double wave of mourning. As an added component to the situation, we all had limited clothing packed in our Hurricane Ida evacuation suitcases. Losing both of my grandpas before and during the break meant cycling between the two outfits I evacuated with and two black dresses for their respective funerals. The repeat of clothing added to the feeling that I was living a nightmare, my own personal Groundhog’s Day from hell. It seemed never-ending, and the residual fear of receiving bad news sits with me every time I get a call from a family member or text from a friend asking to speak. Every time.
As I write this, looking at the framed photos of my grandpas that I brought down to school with me, I feel the deepest, most hollow sadness. What do you do when you want to talk to someone but you know there isn’t anyone waiting for you on the other end of the phone? How do you answer, “Why me? Why now?” I know I keep asking questions, but these are the questions I ask myself everyday. I am so confused; I have never grieved like this before. I am so excited for my future, to graduate college and get a job, to meet someone and start a family, to create my own life – but it is so hard now, to look towards the future when you finally get to the point where growing up means losing the ones you love. It is inevitable, and scary, and I don’t know what to do. The things I would give to drive to the Short Hills Public Library and pick out a Charlie Brown VCR tape to watch at the sleepover, or to ride the elevator up to my grandparents’ apartment and see them sitting next to each other in bed. The things I would give – I would give anything.
And I know everyone goes through this, but I just wanted to share my story, and a little bit of their story too. By writing this article, I am doing my part in memorializing all the good and love my grandpa and Bon Papa brought into my life. By writing this article, I am reminding you to pick up the phone and call your grandpa, or your grandma, or anyone else you love. My grief is only alleviated by knowing I have no regrets, that I was there for them without question, always. I am so privileged to have had the opportunity to serve as a doting granddaughter. It is almost hard to be sad when I have twenty years of amazing memories to be thankful for. Their love, even now, drives out the darkness. I am forever protected knowing that they loved me the way that they did, so special that I truly could not ask for anything better in this life. I can’t even think of an alternative that measures up. There is no sweeter gift than the love between a grandpa and his girl.