“I’m not greedy. I’m not asking for that perfect day at the beach. Just give me that horrible Saturday, all four of us sick and miserable, but alive, and together. Right now that sounds like heaven to me.” Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers
Mourning the loss of a loved one is a very interesting and individual thing. Psychological models tell us that there are stages of grief. I’ve used these models as a measuring stick for my own grieving process, only to find that no two people are alike or grieve in the same manner. There are popular (mis)conceptions of how to “properly” grieve. On my way from the funeral home the day my granny passed away, a neighbor said to me, “It’s gonna hit you later on.” He assumed that I hadn’t fully grasped the impact of my granny’s death, because I wasn’t crawling on the ground and pulling out my hair in a raging fit of despair. Little did he know, I had gotten a head start on my grieving. I had engaged in such crazed behavior before granny’s death, when I realized that she didn’t have long left to live and I couldn’t bear to see her suffer. Even after her death, I pleaded with an invisible granny, Whyyyyyyyyy did you have to leave me? You know I need you! Afterwards, I laughed as I imagined granny looking down at me with a frown on her face and saying, “Stop it! Stop making all that noise!” The day after one such cry fest, a colleague saw my puffy eyes and asked if I was OK. “I’m fine. I need to take some Claritin for my allergies,” I told her. The truth is that grief is a stealthy culprit that constantly changes shapes. Grief comes in the form of headache-inducing tears. It is the sometimes pounding, other times subtle, but ever-present heaviness that bears down on your chest and hampers your breathing, making your heart race and skip beats. A veil that floats through the air, wrapping mundane acts of daily living in memories of your loved one. An elderly woman walking up subway steps reminds me of how granny used to wait at the train station for me every night so that I wouldn’t have to walk home alone. Every time I buy take-out food, I remember how I used to bring food home after work and share it with granny as we watched TV and talked.
It’s hard to know how to mourn, and whether one’s way of mourning is correct, proper, or even normal. What is normal? And who gets to be the judge, jury, and psychiatrist? I now understand people who leave the bedrooms of their dearly departed just as they were before their loved ones passed away. I used to think these people were emotionally unstable, stuck in the past, and in need of some happy pills. That may be true. And maybe not. But, I am now one of them. Three months after her death, granny’s bedroom remains unchanged. The clothes granny wore to the hospital – undergarments, dress, sweater, and shoes, still lay balled up in the plastic bag an ER nurse gave me four months ago. They still reek of death, and bring painful memories. Granny’s two packs of Oreo cookies still lay in her night stand drawers, hidden from her greedy home attendants and invisible friends. Her half-eaten croissant is still in its plastic wrapper in the refrigerator, along with her jar of duck sauce and the prune juice she drank daily to keep her “regular.” “You need to throw that stuff away. It’s not as if she’s coming back to eat it,” someone recently said to me. Granny’s dirty laundry is still unsorted in her hamper, littered with food stains and still smelling like a mixture of her body musk and the Dior Addict 2 body lotion she loved. “What you doin’ with that glittery lotion on, ma-ma,” a male nurse asked granny in the ER. Granny’s sweat pants with the word Peace written on the butt make me laugh because they remind me of her feistiness, and the times when she was anything but peaceful. I lovingly look at bags granny packed with eyeglasses, napkins and pieces of paper, and then hid in random places. I remember how she always loved to carry purses, was always packing to go somewhere, and why we always had to hide her glasses and the paper towels. These were the closest things to her. The scents I smelled when I hugged her. The life she lived and the things she loved. They all evoke memories of her, and our life together.
It is true. I am now one of the mourners of the hoarding variety. But, I am quite fine with that. Keeping remnants of loved ones close is also a way of mourning. There is comfort in the familiar. Each item represents many memories. Keeping things just as they were is an attempt to freeze time. Yes, you know that your loved one is gone and will never return. Yes, you have all of their wonderful memories. No, you cannot keep things as they were forever or bring your loved one back. But, just for a little while longer, you want to feel their presence. Just for a little while longer, you want to savor the images of their happy, healthy, living selves.
Is there a normal way to mourn? I’ll never know. But, it is a deeply personal journey. Perhaps the best way to mourn is at one’s own pace and in a way that gives you peace. Learning to adjust to life without my granny poo is my newest and greatest challenge. I will continue to cherish her memories, and will move along one step, one day, one piece of clothing, and one Oreo cookie at a time. I will not put a time limit on my own grieving process. Each day, I’ll get stronger and stronger. For me, this is the essence of good mourning.