I remember feeling conflicted as we picked out my grandma’s casket. I shouldn’t care what type of wood it is made out of or the color of the interior lining. Pardon my frankness, but it’s really just a box of bones—this casket is not my grandma’s eternal home. Except that I want her box of bones to be made of only the best materials! After all, I love those bones.
On the morning of Grandma’s funeral, after the casket had been chosen and her body placed inside, I was heading to the funeral home with my family. Our route took us past the cemetery where her casket would be buried later that day. As we drove by, we saw the deep hole that had been dug in front of her tombstone, but it looked a little “off.” Had Grandma’s grave been made on the wrong plot of land? Was she about to be buried in a grave marked for someone else? How horrifying!
So I did something I never anticipated doing before my grandmother’s funeral: In my black dress and high heels, I ran through the cemetery in the middle of February, weaving around countless tombstones, to get to Grandma’s grave. Before the services began, we wanted to make absolutely certain that the grave had been dug in the correct spot for her burial.
It had. Crisis averted.
So, clearly, there was a lot of conversation, decision-making, and concern centered around that hole dug six feet into the earth. What type of casket will go into this empty space? Will it be wood or metal, a half-couch or full-couched lid? Should we have it lined with velour or velvet? What should Grandma wear and, oh yeah, can we verify that the grave is actually in the correct spot?
Maybe we talk so much about the empty space dug into the ground—and all that goes into it—because we don’t want to talk about the emptiness we’re feeling inside.
My grandma and I had a special relationship. We would share long weekends at her Missouri home, call each other regularly to swap stories, and even vacationed together to her favorite place on earth: Las Vegas. When she took a bad fall in the spring of 2011, it was, we know now, the beginning of the end. She was gone eight and a half months later.
What I remember most from the days surrounding her death is that hole—not the one at her gravesite, but the one within myself. There had been a place in me that felt full when she was with us—now she was gone, and that fullness emptied into nothingness.
So we walked around with a Grandma-sized emptiness in our hearts, while totally consumed with how to fill the much more tangible hole in the ground. If only it took a morning of decision-making and one quick, formally dressed jog through a cemetery to fill the painful vacancy left in our hearts when a loved one passes away. It is, of course, not wrong that we were so focused on the tangibles of the moment; we all do what we need to do in order to simply make it through those days of overwhelming sorrow.
Here’s what I’ve learned since my grandma’s last breath was taken four years ago:
The hole in our souls we feel when loved ones pass on does not disappear.
It doesn’t go away with the passing of time, nor is it ever forgotten. We cannot fill it with an expensive box of bones, cover it with dirt, and then wait for the grass to grow again—making it look as if the hole going six feet under had never been dug.
However, the emptiness can be filled in slightly, even if only a little bit-by-bit.
I was gifted a flight to see my grandma ten days before her death, which gave me the opportunity to say a final I love you; I’ll miss you; See you later. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to see her and know it would be the last time.
The emptiness lessens, bit by bit.
A year after her death, I had a dream about her that was so vivid, I felt like I’d be able to reach out and touch her. I could see her sitting at a café with loved ones, her body healthy and able, and she was laughing so hard she was slapping her knee! It’s been three years since that dream and I can still see her clearly—it is a precious gift I couldn’t have orchestrated on my own. And, bit by bit, the emptiness lessens.
On the day my boyfriend proposed, I was missing Grandma particularly deeply. Before leaving the house for what I thought would only be dinner, I put her high-school ring on my finger. Little did I know, I would be getting engaged that night, and a photographer captured the entire event. Now, I have photos from that sacred moment, and I can see her ring on my right hand—present with me as I said yes to the man I love. Little bit by little bit. . .
These are memories that fill some of the emptiness left by her passing. My grief and ache for her does not just disappear; but the recollections and experiences that make her feel close help to lessen the void I feel.
After the coffin and grave are filled, we remain—still feeling empty or alone. We lose a piece of us with the death of a loved one; and in that loss, we are given the opportunity to see and know they are with us. With little bits at a time, the memories and experiences fill in some of the gap—not completely, of course, but in ways that bring us some deep peace.
I think it’s what my Grandma would have wanted for me—to remember her with fondness and joy, noticing the little places where she pops up in my world these days. The emptiness will certainly never be completely filled, but with memories of the past and eyes to see her “with me” today, it will never again be so empty.