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What I’ve Learned About Grief

Just over four years ago I sat waiting in the Delta hub of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport.  I was leaving for China to be a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years.  My mom went to high school with one of the guys who works the baggage check counter, so he gave my parents and grandparents special passes that let them come past security and walk me to my gate.  My flight was delayed about 20 minutes, so we all just kind of sat there awkwardly trying not to cry except for my dad, who went to the gift store and bought me a too-big, long-sleeved Cincinnati tshirt and a neck pillow for the plane. 


When it was finally time for me to depart I strapped on my oversized backpack full of all the things I thought I needed, tucked my new tshirt and pillow into my tote, and hugged my parents and grandparents good-bye.  The waterworks started then, and I don’t think they really stopped until I started meeting other volunteers and the excitement overtook the fear of leaving.


My biggest fear in moving overseas was that something was going to happen, and I wouldn’t be home when it did.  My biggest fear was losing someone close to me, and not being there to say goodbye. 


Three years ago today, my biggest fear came true.       My grandfather was working in the yard at my uncle’s house, and he fell.  He bruised his vertebrae in his neck, became paralyzed, and his body began shutting down until we made the decision to take him off life support.  He died.  And I barely made it home in time. 


I’ve learned a lot about grief during the past three years.  I’ve learned how to choke it down, so that I can get things done.  I’ve learned to ignore it, so that I can be a comfort to those who can’t.  I’ve learned how to let it so consume me that just getting out of bed in the morning can be difficult.  I’ve learned that people respond differently to grief—sometimes in surprising ways, sometimes in predictable ways.  I’ve learned that life after someone you love has died can look a lot like that scene from Great Expectations where Pip first walks into Miss Havisham’s house and sees everything exactly has it has been for so many years – frozen and preserved in time, lifeless.  I’ve learned that no matter how hard I try to move on, a part of me will always and forever carry around that grief.


My grandfather was a wonderful man, and he taught me a lot of things.  He taught me to be kind to people.  He taught me to work hard.  He taught me that even though you work hard, you don’t always succeed.  He taught me that even though you work hard, and you don’t always succeed, the greater reward is in the perseverance you develop as a result of sticking with something until you get it right. He taught me to live life, to pursue my dreams, and to be proud of myself in spite of my faults and flaws.  He taught me that I was never going to be perfect, but that perfect didn’t matter because I would always have people around me who loved me.


I spoke to my grandparents about once a week over skype while I was living in China.  But, before I stepped onto the plane just over four years ago to begin my adventure, my grandfather gave me a hug and told me how proud he was of me. 


A lot has changed since he died.  But, today, on this third anniversary of his death, I choose to celebrate his life.  Instead of being swallowed up by grief and paralyzed by loss, I’m going to be kinder to people.  I’m going to work harder.  I’m going to persistently and relentlessly go after my dreams, and I’m going to keep living.  I think that would make him proud.


Losing someone close to me and not being there when it happens is still my greatest fear.  I think it always will be.  But if my grandfather had been able to predict the future four years ago, I think he would have still told me to go.  I really do.  And that has finally given me comfort.  

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