Grief is a funny creature and intensely personal. Everyone handles it differently. There’s certainly no rule book. The griever, and those supporting them have a whole set of emotions that come with the experience.
Some want to wallow in it and just feel every painful second.
Some want to meet it with denial and ask the universe, “why?”.
Some prefer distractions from the pain by remembering and reveling in the good times.
Some enjoy a handcrafted grief cocktail, as I like to call it. Pulling from the different grief style buckets as needed.
And then there are those of us who use humor as a coping mechanism for the darker times. This is my go-to, personally. Thankfully, this trait appears to be hereditary in my family. So, when we lost my grandmother just a few of months ago, onlookers were probably trying to figure out if they were watching a family mourn its matriarch, or a pilot for a new Bravo reality franchise.
My grandmother was 98 ½ when she died. Her health had been declining over the years eventually putting her into congestive heart failure, but it was a remarkably slow progression, all things considered. Then again she was a remarkable woman. She had three daughters who made it feel like you were watching an ongoing stand-up set at any moment in time, the youngest being my mother. They also became the caretakers of my grandmother as her health dwindled. They kept her in her own home as long as they possibly could, but realistically she needed to be in a long-term care facility so that she could have access to 24/7 help.
No matter how heavy things felt, they all tried to balance it with levity. For example, even if my grandmother could not physically get out of bed, there was at least one daughter there on most days who would yell, “Ma! Put on your lipstick!” in an unmistakable long island drawl so thick you could cut it with a knife and shmear it on a bagel. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t leaving the house or seeing a soul. There was a visceral need for everyone to hang on to the little luxuries veiled as normalcy to get through the days.
Once she was in the home, I watched my mom and aunts grapple with guilt and relief simultaneously. Relief that their mother had 24-hour care and they didn’t have to worry about 3am calls from my grandmother that she fell out of bed again. “Ma! Why didn’t you press the button on your necklace? That’s why you have it and why we pay a monthly fee!” To which she would simply say, “I didn’t want to be a bother.” And she meant it. That was one of the hardest things for her. She never wanted to feel like a burden to anyone. Not her family and not the EMTs who would show up to help her get back into bed and make sure she wasn’t hurt. She was selfless, even when she needed help the most. Especially then.
When it started to get dire, my cousins all booked tickets to come down from New York and see her. I won’t lie and say that there weren’t tears as we all tried to wrap our head around the idea that her time was coming. How do you spend time with someone knowing you may not get tomorrow? In my family it’s usually tied to levity that knows no bounds. We congregated in her room, clearly breaking the visitor limit, as she sat in hospice (still wearing lipstick obviously). She couldn’t really talk. A few words here and there. But she would stare at you. Look right into your eyes. And she didn’t have to say it for all of us to know that this was the happiest she’d been in a while – surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The empire she built – 3 daughters, 7 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren, was everything to her and she, everything to all of us.
After our mass visit, we all left her and went to dinner at a big plaza filled with restaurants, shops and a world-renowned horse track. My cousins put money on a horse named, Philip. He was not favored to win or even place. He wasn’t even mentioned by any of the critics predicting the race, actually. But Philip was my grandfather’s name. He died when I was 2 and was the love of my grandmother’s life. As the race began, everyone crowded around the large screen TV streaming the race in the restaurant. Before we knew what happened, Philip took the lead and he won! We were SCREAMING! It was a sign if I ever saw one.
Not too long after that visit, she was gone. The sadness was overwhelming, even though not unexpected. The matriarch of our family left a void that could never be filled. And even as we were getting the affairs in order, it came with a dose of our trademark family humor. It started the morning I was meeting my mom and aunt to finalize her funeral arrangements when I got a semi-frantic phone call from my mother that we needed to get her a bra. While we already had an outfit for her to be buried in, the thought of undergarments was not top of mind for any of us until the funeral director mentioned it.
So, off to Marshall’s I went to search for a bra and underwear to send my Grandma off to heaven to be with my grandfather for eternity. “Get something sexy,” my mom said only half joking. As I was perusing the racks of bras and underwear it felt surreal. My fellow shoppers picking out their intimates could not possibly imagine that I was there to find something suitable for a casket. The pickings were slim, and I called my mother to tell her that the only things they had in her size were push up bras. “Do it! It’s perfect, she would love it! She deserves to be laid to rest with her boobs pointing to the sky one last time. And make sure the underwear match and that they are comfortable.” Even in an impossibly sad moment, my mother knew just what to say (intentional or not) to stay on brand for our family and get through it.
As we navigated through my grandmother’s pre-determined funeral plans, the funeral director had a presentation up on the screen showing us what she purchased for herself. With each detail, the funeral director would ask my mom if she wanted to change or add something. My mom would reply, “Does it come with it?” The way you would ask at a restaurant when a server tries to rope you into the side-salad you never really wanted for an additional $3.99.
“Would you like the shiva information listed on the website?
“Does it come with it?”
“Do you want a memorial candle for each of you?”
“Does it come with it?”
And as the rabbi performed the service, it was filled with the same level of humor and touching stories she would have wanted. She had already told my mother before she died, that she didn’t want anyone talking about things like how great her stuffed cabbage recipe was because she always hated that at funerals. Having outlived most of her friends she was somewhat of a funeral and eulogy connoisseur. Instead, her service included funny (bordering inappropriate) stories and made mention of her having crushes on all her doctors and even making them take pictures with her since she never left home without a Kodak Fun Saver disposable camera. It was always ready in her purse. Her signature move. Following my bridal shower for my first wedding, we went back to my mom’s to ogle my newly acquired honeymoon lingerie. As I was trying some of the pieces on for a makeshift fashion show because we obviously have no recognizable boundaries in my family, my grandmother took out the Fun Saver and I dove with the speed and precision of an Olympian, behind a loveseat before she could snag photos. When we were putting finishing touches on her service, my mom asked if it would be tacky to bury her with a Fun Saver. I told her we just hoisted her boobs up into a padded push up bra and so I think the Fun Saver idea was tame and completely fitting.
It was unbearable to say goodbye but also perfectly personal, intimate and an exact manifestation of how my family operates. Bringing comedy and a little light into the darkest of times may not be how everyone copes, but it’s how we manage the messy parts of life and for that I am grateful. I have no doubt she greeted my Grandfather by pulling out the Fun Saver and telling him to smile as the little plastic camera clicked to capture the memory like all the others she carefully curated throughout all our lives.