Learning How to Grieve
I sat in the office of my grandmother’s house. Just seconds ago, I had been on the phone, but I now spun my chair around to survey all of the memorabilia that surrounded the room. A Mike Trout baseball poster hung against the closet door. A photo of the Atlantic City Surf, the city’s former independent baseball team, was pasted to the wall on the other side of the room. Miniature, plastic army men sat in the case parallel to me, defended by two single pieces of tape which held the door closed.
It brought a smile to my face. The first in a while. All of these goofy things belonged to my grandfather, who had died just a couple of hours ago.
I was walking down the street, back to my friend Jared’s house when I got the phone call. It wasn’t late, but it wasn’t early either. It was a dark night in mid October, 2014. The call was from my mom.
I assumed that it was a call to ask how I was doing. It was my first night I had ever spent at Jared’s house and she was probably worrying, so I answered. But instead of hearing my mom, I heard my dad. He was crying. As expected, I was shocked. I’d never heard or seen my father cry.
“Ben,” he said bluntly. “Grandpa died.”
The rest of that conversation and what happened directly after is a blur. I know I didn’t cry. Instead, I remember standing on some person’s lawn in Northeast Philly in the dark, completely shellshocked.
It turns out that my grandfather, grandmother, cousin, and uncle were headed to dinner around 7 or 8. They were going to celebrate my cousin Rebecca’s acceptance into medical school at Ventura’s Restaurant in Northfield, New Jersey, just four blocks away from my grandparent’s house.
When they entered the lobby of Ventura’s, my grandfather noticed he forgot something in the car. He told my grandmother that he was going to the car to get it. My grandmother asked to walk with him to the car, as it was across a busy street and my grandfather wasn’t the most steady walker. However, he insisted that my grandmother not come with him. He was fine going by himself.
But a couple minutes later a lady ran into the restaurant and nervously exclaimed that a man had just been hit outside. My grandmother knew right there that it was my grandfather who had been hit.
I arrived at my grandmother’s house that night after spending most of the hour ride to South Jersey listening to music, lost in J Cole’s words. Although I may have looked mad or sad, sitting silenced in the car, I was thinking.
We arrived at my grandmother’s house around 10 or 11. My uncle was there, as was my grandmother, and cousin. My family was smaller on my dad’s side. I had two cousins, and an uncle and an aunt, as opposed to almost 25 relatives on my mom’s side.
Walking into the house, there was obviously a certain sadness. On the other hand, there was also some awkwardness in the air. What were we supposed to do? There wasn’t really much to say, it was still so new and uncomfortable. I was just happy to be surrounded by my family and have the ability to help my grandmother.
It wasn’t much longer until my aunt came up to me.
“Hey Ben, could you do a favor for me?”
“You know how Max is in California? Well, I was hoping you could speak to him. You know hard it probably is on him to be thousands miles away with no one to really comfort him. Could you talk to him, just see how he’s feeling and stuff?”
Max was my other cousin and at the time he was in college in California. I didn’t really know what to say to my aunt because I wasn’t keen on the idea talking to Max. What would I say? I envisioned an incomplete conversation without much to say.
Yeah, I’m fine. How about you?…I know, it’s really sad what happened...I was at my friend’s house when I heard, how about you?...Yeah still feeling fine…Okay, see ya.
But I agreed and walked up the stairs to my grandfather's former office for privacy.
I tried to sound a little more cheerful than I was when I talked to Max. I didn’t want him to worry about me. I tried to keep a positive attitude, so I asked him how he was feeling and we talked about what happened to grandpa.
After we both said that we were doing fine, there wasn’t much else to say. Again, the awkwardness that I had experienced in the living room 20 minutes ago was happening over the phone. Grandpa had died. Yes it was sad, but it was still all so new. It hadn’t hit me yet and I didn't know what to ay about it.
“So, uh,” I said, looking for something to talk about, “who do you think is going to win the NBA championship?”
We continued with a couple more awkward exchanges about sports and ended the conversation.
I sat in the room a little bit longer, cherishing the peace. I rolled the chair around and surveyed all of the collectibles that my grandfather had. I smiled as I remembered his goofiness and his love for buying things for himself and friends. The room embraced all that my grandfather stood for as a person. His desk represented his love to work. His baseball cards floating around represented his love for baseball. His poster of the Atlantic City Surf, a small, independent, and struggled baseball team formerly from Atlantic City, showed his loyalty to the places, things, and people he loved, regardless of what others thought.
As I smiled, I even shed a tear. I rarely cried, but I noticed that this room was my grandfather. Looking back, this was probably where his death finally set into reality for me.
For the next few days I was surrounded by family and friends at all times. I never had the space to be upset because I was enclosed by people that were visibly sad. I didn’t want to show them that I was hurt. I didn’t want them to worry about me. Instead, I wanted to be there for them because I was confident I could figure it out myself.
After three days of missing school because of the funeral and mourning, I decided that it was time to go back to school and somewhat return back to life. My cousin, Rebecca, worked in the city, so she volunteered to drive me down to school from South Jersey, where I had stayed the last couple days. The feeling I experienced when returning back to my regular lifestyle was similar to Private Bartle’s in The Yellow Birds. When he comes back to Richmond, Virginia, he is oddly out of his comfort zone. After spending almost a year in Iraq, he felt that not a single person around him could understand what he went through in Richmond and it ate him alive.
Like Bartle, when I walked into school that morning, I suddenly felt alone. No longer did I have friends and family surrounding me. No longer were they there to comfort me and understood what I was going through. No longer were they there to distract me from my own sadness. I had to return back to regular life.
I walked into Mr. Todd’s class and people asked me where I was.
“Uh...Personal stuff,” I told them. It was around 8:05 and there was still about 10 minutes before class began.
I sat down in my seat and pulled out my computer. I felt out of place. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be with my family that knew what happened and could help me. Instead, I was sitting in school by myself. It wasn’t long before class began and Mr. Todd put on an educational movie. Great. Now, I was alone in the dark, only accompanied by a boring movie.
Instead of being distracted, my thoughts kept returning to my grandfather. It was the first time since the funeral that I had visibly felt sad. At that moment, I could not control my emotions. As I sat there watching the movie, I honestly felt alone. No one could help me. It was one of the tougher classes I had ever sat through.
The rest of the day is still a blur to me. I vaguely remember taking a test the next period, but then I also remember working on a project. Everything about that day just clumps together in my mind.
However, I learned a lot from this experience. I learned that while your life may be in uprooted and disrupted, it still goes on around you. Most of the time, we want to conceal our feelings and hide them from others for many different reasons. Not that it’s a bad thing; it’s just people’s preference of how much information they want to tell others. You never know what one may be going through, so it’s always important to make sure you are putting your nicest persona forward.
I also learned to understand that when you move out of your comfort zone after a traumatic experience, you just need to prepare yourself to be okay with being upset. Pain is inevitable when you lose someone you love. Is it bad? No. Is it good? Probably not. But it happens and the best you can do is prepare yourself for it.