4 Lessons I Learned From Grief—and How They’ve Changed My Life

As a child, I remember my friends going over to their grandparents’ homes for the weekend and coming home with mountains of homemade cookies and hand-knit sweaters. Me? I came home from my Grammy’s house smelling of patchouli and incense. I would hop back in the car from East Texas back to Dallas arm-in-arm with a pile of new books from the thrift store, a head chock full of Beatles songs, and lots of stories to chat about on the two-hour drive home.

From what you can probably gather, my Grammy wasn’t the typical grandparent that you may have grown up with. She was a nurse dedicated to each and every patient that saw her, an activist for everyone who walked past her, an animal rehabber who took care of everything from chinchillas to possums, and a hippie at heart. When she died in 2017, I was wrecked—and so was everyone else. It wasn’t until I began to deal with my grief in a productive way that I realized something: the people we love leave us with lessons in the smallest, most magical of places—it’s just up to us to find them. 

 

1. Life’s too short for boring

I’ve always been a monochrome girl. I love a nice gray sweater, a fantastic pair of black jeans, and dainty gold jewelry. My room has always been decorated in neutrals (with the exception of an unfortunate satin purple bedspread in the 4th grade), and I’ve always been happy with it. My Grammy, on the other hand? Everything has always, always been an explosion of color. From the tie-dyed peace sign bumper stickers on her red Nissan Cube to the bright shirts and scrubs she wore on the daily to the card she carried as a member of the Red Hat Society, she was a huge proponent of rainbows and color bursts in any and every situation. 

When she died, I wanted to honor her in little, everyday ways. For me, this looked like adding a rainbow quilt to my bed and a bright-colored tassel to my keys. More importantly, it was a reminder to me that she wasn’t one for normal things—and life was too short to be normal all the time. Loss is heavy, but finding bright spots to remember your loved one by is a way to lighten the load. By finding tangible, small ways to remember the person you lost, the grieving process might just shorten itself.

My challenge to you: Add a little color to your bedroom with a bright pillow, swipe on some red lipstick, or pick up the bright blue socks from Target instead of the plain white ones.

 

 

It was a reminder to me that she wasn’t one for normal things—and life was too short to be normal all the time. Loss is heavy, but finding bright spots to remember your loved one by is a way to lighten the load.

 

 

2. Spread some love in your loved one’s honor

As a (sometimes) vegetarian, an animal rehabber, and a seriously political woman, my Grammy did her absolute best to teach my sister, my cousin, and I about how lucky we were to have an Earth that supported us like it did. She also taught us how lucky we were to have animals that roamed the Earth and snuggled up next to us, and she was recycling everything in sight and carrying reusable bags way before it was the cool thing to do. She spent every extra second of her life volunteering somewhere, in some capacity, and I never once heard her complain. From picking up extra shifts as a hospice nurse on top of her normal ER hours and waking up at all hours of the night to bottle-feed injured possums, she never, ever put herself first. 

In the years that have passed, I’ve become acutely aware of the holes in my community and the world that I could be helping with. Many of us probably understand the dichotomy that often occurs when we lose someone close to us—that balance between honoring someone while remembering they weren’t perfect people—that can add a confusing element to an already confusing time. While I’m sure my Grammy had qualities that were certainly not great, choosing to embrace her love for the world has helped me become a better person in every way. Grief is a messy, convoluted process, and none of it is particularly joyful. However, choosing to embrace and live out the spots in your loved one’s lives that gave them joy is the surest and quickest way to give yourself some spark.

My challenge to you: Set up a recurring monthly donation to a political candidate that inspires you, go pet the puppies living in cages at your local animal shelter, and rinse the shampoo out of your bottle so you can recycle it, damn it!

 

 

Grief is a messy, convoluted process, and none of it is particularly joyful. However, choosing to embrace and live out the spots in your loved one’s lives that gave them joy is the surest and quickest way to give yourself some spark.

 

 

3. People make all the difference

After my Grammy died, we had the intensely un-fun job at our hands to go through her things. I found myself near her bookshelves—the exact ceiling-to-floor shelves that had captivated me as a child—picking through the thousands of novels and self-help books that filled out. On the bottom shelf, I found a collection of all of her old high school yearbooks. They were coated in a thin layer of dust, and it was obvious that she hadn’t touched them in a while. I cracked them open, and the inside front and back covers were simply covered with long, handwritten notes about how grateful they were to have met a sweet spirit like her. As a high school teacher myself, I understand how rare it is for any high schoolers to write much more than “have a good summer” in anyone’s yearbook. 

The truth is, our life is full of tiny little moments and seemingly ordinary encounters that can, quite literally, change lives. Whether we’re in line for an oil change or making friends at work, the same old adage rings true: people will simply never forget how you made them feel. In a world rife with turmoil and heavy with reminders that life can change on a dime, it’s our job to build meaningful relationships and love as well as we can. After all, not a single day is guaranteed.

My challenge to you: Pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t talked to in a while, write a thank-you note to a teacher who made an impact on you, or make a point to have a true conversation with someone you love.

 

 

The truth is, our life is full of tiny little moments and seemingly ordinary encounters that can, quite literally, change lives. Whether we’re in line for an oil change or making friends at work, the same old adage rings true: people will simply never forget how you made them feel.

 

 

4. Never, ever stop searching for more

My Grammy was always looking for something. I spent 23 years as her granddaughter before she died, and in that time I saw her explore transcendental meditation, dabble in Buddhist and Hindu prayers, twist herself into yoga positions, burn incense, and convert to Judaism from Methodism. She was on a constant quest for self-improvement, an understanding of the beyond, and a spiritual view of the world. While her method was unorthodox, it also reminds me of how important it is to never stop looking. While religion might be an extreme example, it’s our job to question the world we live in. It’s our job to look into things, to try new methods for life, and to be unorthodox while we still can. 

Losing someone is a difficult mountain to climb, and it often opens up questions that weren’t there before. However, taking that heartbreak and sadness and making it into a learning experience? I feel like there’s nothing that could honor those we love any better than that. We’re only on this earth for a short while, and making the most of every single second is the only good way to do it.

My challenge to you: Go to therapy, download an app and dabble in meditation, or crack open a new self-help book that challenges you.

 

 

It’s our job to question the world we live in. It’s our job to look into things, to try new methods for life, and to be unorthodox while we still can. 

 

 

Perhaps the most vivid memory from the week my Grammy died is getting the call that she had passed away and thinking to myself that it was my job to hold everyone else together. We’re a family of close-knit, like-minded women, and my mom lost her mother that day. The way I saw it, I couldn’t let myself cry or be overcome with grief. If I did, I was letting everyone else down and giving us permission to unravel from the inside out. I held my sister’s hand at the funeral and spoke to everyone gathered without a single shake in my voice, and I never, ever let anybody see me cry. 

In hindsight, all that stoicism did was turn me away from every single lesson my Grammy had ever taught me. Feelings are there for a reason, and the people we love leaving us is staggeringly painful. Instead of sinking into ourselves, we’re all meant to rise up by loving people deeply, constantly bettering ourselves, sending love out in every direction, and doing it dressed in colorful clothes. After all, what’s left without color, light, love, and emotion? Nothing but darkness. When the people we love leave us with good, we have to carry it on.

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