How To Grieve Alone During A Pandemic

Tomorrow, it will be two years since my sweet granny, Mary Lou Burford, died from COVID-19. While this is what ended her life, Alzheimer’s is truly what took her away from us.

I’ve seen dementia described as both a long goodbye as well as a stolen one, and both of these assessments are absolutely true. However, there’s a specific kind of cruelty in watching someone dear to you evaporate in bits and pieces, only to have the final goodbye be abrupt, rushed, sudden, and lonely.

I had just moved back to Detroit from Denver on April 21st, 2020. My granny was admitted to the hospital for low blood oxygen levels on the afternoon of the 23rd. Since I had just driven across the country, I was isolating, only able to receive updates via text and phone calls. I couldn’t hug my dad, who was arranging a way for his mom to be read her last rights, something that would have been important to her. I couldn’t hang out with my cousins and drink chardonnay with ice, our granny’s favorite. I couldn’t hold my grandpa’s hand, who was unable to be with his wife of 65 years in her final days.

When she did pass away early in the morning on April 27th, I drove to my parents’ house to stand six feet apart in the driveway. On the 30th, we were able to have a quick family viewing, after which I headed to my apartment to continue isolating alone. Everything felt hazy, surreal, but mostly just really sad. Six years of constant farewells and this was the conclusion? I have yet to reconcile with this ending, a simmering rage and quiet sadness are still holding me hostage.

She was my favorite person.

I know grief has never lent itself to a cohesive narrative, a linear journey. The theorized five stages dance out of sync, coming in and out of hearts, not unlike an overly comfortable house guest. I can understand my aching is normal. But to an extent, I am also realizing this was not the typical way one lets go.

With no real funeral, no proper family time to look at pictures and talk about her, I feel stuck. My grief is like a stalled car on the side of the freeway, no pickup truck in sight, other drivers passing me by, no one stopping to offer to check under the hood or jumper cables. Shouldn’t I be able to fix it myself, after all?

I’m not so sure anymore.

I know that we’ll be able to celebrate her life one day, but until then, I am afraid I will be lodged in my lonely hurt, struggling to process it all.

I wish I could come up with some beautiful lesson to be learned from all of this but I don’t think there is one. Perhaps the point is that life is painfully unfair sometimes and you just have to find a way to deal with it. I don’t know.

I remember someone tried to comfort me when my granny first started showing signs of dementia. They said it was okay because at least she didn’t realize what was happening. Little did they know about the time I visited her at the nursing home, where she looked at me across the table with a child’s eyes and said, I am so afraid.

Sure, she couldn’t recall she had attended my college graduation two years earlier, but she knew something was terribly wrong. This memory will always haunt me.

Our memories are everything and construct the way we view the world. What we remember makes us who we are, and while we are not defined by our pasts, our histories do shape the way we look at our present and steer us towards our future. While we can’t change what’s already happened, we can find ways to see it a little differently, easing old aches that no longer serve us.

So, if this is true, then I am going to force myself to look back more intentionally. My granny having Alzheimer’s is not how I want to remember her, even though those are my final recollections of her.

So, if you don’t mind, I will try here:

My granny kept planners and sticky notes reminders and called every one of her 15 grandkids on their birthdays, sending a card with a personalized note to each of us, one that is hung up on my fridge now from 2012. She loved being a grandmother as much as she loved being a mother to six. She had a fantastic sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself.

I never saw her wear blue jeans. Not one time. It was a joke among us grandkids, how casual dress wasn’t even remotely on her radar. Nope. Instead, she always donned either black slacks, a dress, a skirt, or khaki shorts. She went to the salon weekly to keep her hair perfectly coiffed and honey blonde, each strand in its proper place. She wore matching PJs and her house was kept as spotless as her conscience.

Spending time with my granny felt safe. I felt seen. Loved. Heard. Like I could be myself fully in ways I wanted to hide from most people, though, let’s be honest, I could never do so successfully. She never made me feel bad for feeling everything deeply, though. Instead, she hugged me, stressing that sensitive kids like me just needed a little extra love, that’s all.

She enjoyed giving unsolicited advice, a loving but slightly overbearing habit she passed on to me. She adored my mother, who she considered another daughter. She was also always at least two hours late to literally every and any event. As a kid, this used to frustrate me to no end because I was always so excited to see her and the delay made me crazy with anticipation.

(God, what I’d give to wait for her just one more time now.)

What my granny lacked in time management she made up in kindness, care, and good intentions. That was Mary Lou. This is who I miss. This is who I remember most.

I have to say, though, there were instances during her illness I still saw her. She was the most generous and giving person I’ll ever meet, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that her delusions always involved helping someone else. For example, taking care of the baby upstairs, picking up Bill and Kathy from the airport. She was also always offering you her own coffee 15 times when you’d visit, too. In these moments, I saw her again and missed her all at once. It’s a peculiar feeling to long for someone sitting right across from you. I still don’t have the right words to fully describe that, but maybe that’s because there is no way this would ever be possible to do.

When we were being rushed out of the funeral home, I stopped, stood still as if time would wait with me, and broke into a loud, uncontrolled sob. And in that moment, I felt ashamed. I was 28 after all, far too old to be wailing in such a way, no matter how heartbreaking a situation may be. But I couldn’t help it. The only person who ever made me feel okay in my overflow was being buried the next day, a burial COVID restrictions prevented the majority of us from attending.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to fall to pieces at the slightest sign of rain, let alone the storm that is grief. My cousin, Lauren, however, walked right up to me, seemingly saying screw it to social distancing protocols, and held me.

I don’t want to leave her, I cried into her shoulder.

She’s not leaving us, Lauren replied, holding back tears of her own.

A year later, I am now beginning to finally see that she’s not. I see my granny in the tender way my father talks sometimes. Her kindness arrives in my Uncle Gil. Her generosity with time in my Aunt Beth. Her love for advice in my Aunt Debby. Her compassion in my Uncle Bill. Her selflessness in my Uncle Fred. And sometimes, I’m proud to say I see her within me, too.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag lamented her late mother, stressing to her best friend, Boo, how she had so much love left for her mom but nowhere to put it. I now know what she means. I wasn’t ready for my granny’s departure, both in 2014 and in 2020. I still had so much left to say, to ask, to know.

But mostly, I just had so much love reserved for just her, and now she’s gone.

When Fleabag told Boo about the leftover love she had for her mother, Boo told Fleabag she would take it. It has to go somewhere, Boo insisted.

And so will mine. I’ll save some for her but I’ll give the rest to everyone I hold close and to those I’m just meeting and to baristas and to postal workers and to my dog and to my work and to myself, while I’m at it.

After all, that’s what granny would have done. She was all love. This is her legacy, and that’s how she will live on, even though she is no longer here physically.

Maybe that’s the beautiful lesson I’ve been looking for.