When my grandma died when I was 10, I didn’t fully buy it. I knew she was dead and understood what dying meant but I also sensed there was a way around it – that I could somehow bypass the logic of the universe and see her again, one last time. I told my dad I thought Bubbe might return for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah that spring but he just looked at me like I was slowly losing it, which, to be fair, I probably was.
For a short time after her death, my grief completely undid me; it felt bodily; I could feel it in my chest–tightening and releasing. I would look for traces of her face in various surfaces – in the clouds, in the ocean. But by the end of that first year without her, my grief began to level and fade, becoming its own memory. While her death still assumed the shape of heartbreak it now seemed normal and expected – an ordinary tragedy. Losing a grandparent is part of the natural rhythm of our childhoods and early adulthoods. The loss is simply too commonplace to register as an actual trauma. Unless our grandparents helped raise us, the grief doesn’t generally wreck us for decades or impede who we become.
We are conditioned to simply get over it and so, with some time, I did. And later, when my other remaining grandparents passed, I rushed through my grief for them as well. I knew that most of my friends no longer had living grandparents either, which meant I was far from special. Why should I treat my loss like it was?
But later, in my mid 30s, I married someone whose grandfather Norman was a magnetic larger-than-life presence. When Norman spoke, we all listened. Every comment, every joke seemed exalted by a long, rich life history behind it. Age elevates moments. Norman is 93– almost a century old and is still completely with it. He has had 93 years of honing his beliefs, of charting out what matters to him, of crafting the perfect joke. Of course, I wanted to be close to all that wisdom–and to him. His presence seemed essential, almost spiritual. As I began processing how much I truly missed my own grandparents, I realized I was slowly, gradually gaining a new one. Bloodlines now seemed mostly irrelevant.
This came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I didn’t realize I was still so affected by my grandparents’ absence–that it was still etched so deeply in me. But I now realized that without grandparents, I was no longer as grounded to time or place. I felt removed from my own history. I missed the Old World charm my grandparents brought to family gatherings, their clunking Yiddishisms warming the ends of sentences, their chopped liver muddying Matzah chips.
But even more so, I missed the easy intimacy of our relationships. Though I had always felt sufficiently loved by my family, I realized I missed the focused, unadulterated love of a grandparent. With grandparenting, love is often the entire point. It’s the only true end goal. With parenting, love is just as forceful but becomes rightly buried under anxieties and tensions around survival and health and daily happenings. Grandparents can simply outsource some of these anxieties to the parents (“this diaper rash is your battle”) so they have time to telescope their entire focus onto loving and being loved. .
At my wedding, Norman told my mom I was a guteh neshomeh, which he explained was a Yiddish term for someone who was not just sweet but had a deeply good soul. I didn’t feel worthy and most days don’t even feel like a decent person (too gossipy, too judgy). But I appreciate how often grandparents will go so far into a feeling. How so many of them aren’t afraid to go deeper, to access another layer.
After only a short time, gaining a grandparent helped me reencounter my own. I can now look beyond time, past death, and cling to what once felt lost. We should never feel the need to rush grief or normalize it, no matter how standard or expected the death may seem. We should make sure to dignify our own pain, take our time with it, gaze across the horizon of loss to look for our bubbes at family Bar Mitzvahs.
Rachel Ament is a writer and editor based out of Silver Spring, Maryland. She has been published in The Washington Post, British Vogue, Teen Vogue, The Paris Review, NPR, Shape, and Oxygen, among other publications; she also edited and contributed to the book of essays Jewish Daughter Diaries: True Stories of Being Loved Too Much By Our Moms, published by Sourcebooks Inc. in 2014.