I remember the day my great-grandfather died. It’s not like it was unexpected, after all, the man was 101, but it was because he was 101 that I had thought he wasn’t going to die. He was the oldest person I knew, and I thought that he would beat the Guinness world record and die at about 130. Sometime nice and far away. It made sense; when he turned 100, my mom sent him a birthday card and he wrote her back a letter. He called his walker his Corvette, and the only reason he didn’t have his drivers license was because they had made him give it up when he was in his nineties (“I’ve had it for this long; I’m going to keep it!”).
On his last day, my grandparents -my mom’s parents- went to visit him around 5 in the evening. He was very weak and tired, but his mind was as sharp as ever, and they all enjoyed themselves. After they left, the sun was setting, and he asked the nurse to help him sit in a chair facing the window so that he could watch it. When she came back a few minutes later, he was gone.
When I went to the viewing, I couldn’t go pay my respects. I couldn’t bear to see his body, life gone out of it and sagging with the victorious pull of gravity and time. It would have made me vomit, or want to. My parents gave me odd looks when I said I wouldn’t go up, but they didn’t understand and I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to weep, there in full view and hearing of all these relatives who I didn’t know and who weren’t making much noise themselves.
On his hundredth birthday, all his descendants except for a handful came to celebrate with him. We filled a hall, hundreds of us wanting to wish our father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather a happy birthday. Someone had made a video recounting his life, and we watched it and my respect for him grew and grew and grew. He grew up in modern-day Ukraine and, when the communists took over, he was married and his wife was pregnant with their first child. One Sunday, not long after the Bolshevik revolution, he felt very strongly that he had to leave the country that day. He told his family, but they told him that he shouldn’t. It was the Lord’s day; he should rest. He would be able to leave the next day. If he had listened to them, I wouldn’t have been born because the next day the borders closed, no-one in or out, and only he and his pregnant wife, of all his and her family, managed to escape. My great-grandfather was a legend, and legends don’t die. But he did.
The funeral was beautiful. My great-grandfather was Mennonite, so there were two sermons: one in English and the other in German, and half of the hymns were in German. I love the sound of that language, especially when sung and, with the words and music in front of me, I was able to sing and take some joy in the singing, and that comforted me, if only a little…
It feels like it had been only days, the two events are so connected in my mind, but it was really about eight months later when the sister of one of my friends died. She had been born with a heart that didn’t work properly and, before she turned ten, ended up being the youngest person in Alberta to receive a heart transplant. Her body tried to reject the new heart, so she had to take anti-rejection medication. One day, she went to the hospital for something entirely unrelated, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I went to her funeral, too. Her favourite worship band played, but I couldn’t sing. I kept my jaw clenched because, if I opened it, I would weep. At first, I thought it was because of my friend’s sister but, as the songs went on, I realized that all I could see was my great-grandfather’s face. It had taken another death for me to realize he had really died. It felt so odd because I hadn’t known my great-grandpa very well. We lived in two different provinces, and the only time I remember even speaking with him was for less than a minute at his hundredth birthday celebration, and I hadn’t even understood him very well because I was unused to his accent.
I believe very strongly that God did not intend death as a part of the natural order and, when Adam and Eve sinned, they messed up not only themselves, but the whole world. Before all of this, I had believed that as a cerebral thing, intellectualized and sanitized. During the singing at the funeral of my friend’s sister, I felt for the first time that wrongness down to my core. We tell ourselves things like my great-grandpa “going out with the sunset” and that my friend’s sister lived for over a decade after her heart transplant to make ourselves believe that there’s meaning and beauty in the deaths of those we love. We say these things to comfort ourselves, to try to see death as a part of a pattern and ignore what we know when we come face-to-face with it: we were not meant to die. Life has meaning and beauty in it, to be sure, but death is like a blind monster, devouring those nearest and most convenient. So, I stood, surrounded by those who sang, and kept my jaw clenched, telling myself that my great-grandpa and my friend’s sister had gone to heaven. It did not erase the ugliness.
The father of another friend of mine died from a heart attack around Christmas time back while we were in grade twelve. Whenever we were in chapel and the band started “Blessed Be Your Name”, she would weep and weep and weep and no-one could console her. I remember seeing that and not knowing what to do. Her pain was so deep and I couldn’t touch it. I didn’t know how to help heal it. A wall rose up between her and me in those moments, and all I could do was keep standing, sing, and try to think about other things so that I wouldn’t feel so helpless. It tore me to see my friend hurting like that, to see her body so close and her soul so far. I didn’t know how to meet her where she was; I didn’t even know how to try. That’s the difference between then and now. Then, I did not have the experience to do anything but the wrong thing, and now I know that, sometimes, the only thing to do is sit with the one in pain and weep with them.
The worst part of death isn’t when someone dies.
It’s when we grieve alone.
Written in honour of Peter Penner (1908-2009).
I originally wrote this last year in October. It was remarkably emotional for me to do so, to go through all the memories again. Once I finished it, I knew it had to be posted, but I was frightened. The most hateful words we ever hear come from inside our own minds, and mine were terrible.
“No-one wants to read what you’ve written.”
“Stop whining and go do something important.”
“Your experiences are worthless even to yourself.”
“Why would you ever post something so lame?”
“Who are you to think that anyone would ever like this?”
There were more. There are more. They’re still running around in my mind, trying to stop me from pressing the button that will reveal this post to the world.
“I bet you got your chronology totally messed up. Never mind the historical background.”
“You wrote this months ago! It’s terrible. Everyone’s going to hate you for posting something sub-par.”
“I can see their eyes rolling now: ‘Will Thea ever just let it go?’ You do know this happened almost three years ago, right?”
They’re remarkably convincing. They convinced me for five months. But I’m tired of those voices butting in every single time I want to do something that’s vulnerable. I’m tired of them beating me down, telling me that I’m a loser and winning.
It’s my turn to win. This is my blog, and they are not taking this away from me. I refuse to give in and just play it safe.
I love my great-grandfather. When he died, I was devastated and didn’t know how to cope, but I didn’t know how to talk to anyone about it, so I remained utterly alone in my grief, and it was hell. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been there. I’m sure I’m not the only one who needed to know how to share what was going on inside of me.
You’ve taken away years of my life by telling me I can’t talk to anyone about my real feelings about the things that are the most important to me. You’ve taken away countless opportunities where I could have shared my heart with someone and really, truly helped them. It’s because of you that I’ve felt so disconnected for so long. I’m sorry that it took death and the writing about death and the thinking about death for me to realize this about you. And I don’t care one bit that I’m hijacking my own post about grief to deal with the reason that that grief was as terrible to work through as it was.
You are idiotic bastards for telling me that I’m worthless and that what I have to say is worthless, and you are hereby fired. Talk at me all you want; I won’t listen.
You are nothing to me.
The person taking charge of her life,
Thea van Diepen
P.S. If I ever find you harassing any other person in my life, I will make sure they know you for the poisonous liars you are and that, the moment they stop believing you, you are utterly and completely powerless. It would be much easier for you if you just popped out of existence right here and right now, but you’re much too stubborn to take my advice. Good thing I’m much too stubborn to take yours.