How to Deal with a Death in the Family

My grandmother died in her sleep two days before her 99th birthday. In dealing with this death in the family, I wrote this. It helped my family and maybe it could help others, too.

I can’t say I knew my grandmother very well. She never shared very much. And since I was the child in the relationship I couldn’t take the initiative. Or I didn’t know how. I couldn’t be what I didn’t know existed.

I am grateful, however, that I grew up. As an adult, I came to see and have compassion for the parts of her that were vulnerable and child-like. I accepted to be just that in my relationship with her—the adult.

In this recounting, I want to pray for her passing, for her soul, for her journey. May her soul be blessed and guided. For it is not for us to know or understand the journey of each soul or the purpose for each life on the planet.

But I feel it is important to respect and value each life regardless. And to accept the sacredness of each life by considering that there is a reason for it. And in so doing, we can have reverence for life itself.

Each of us, in our own way, is holy, a gift from God. And each life a Divine opportunity.

It helps to remember each person as a baby and the beautiful gift, the possibility, the opportunity of the new life. As a person ages, the value of this life does not diminish.

There is a beautiful line from a psalm that keeps coming to mind: Kol haneshama te halel yah. Every soul praises God. It is one of the most joyful psalms. A celebration of the soul’s sacred existence.

Even when we are not always expressing our Divine nature, our soul is always trying to find its way home. No matter how unclear the road may get.

I have tried to imagine what my grandmother’s life was like, what might have happened to her as a child in the Ukraine before she came to Canada—the pogroms and abuse, the fear, violations, and murders.

How can a kid from Montreal really “get” that?

Or the hardships my grandmother and her family, led by a single mother, must have faced as immigrants in Montreal. I have wondered about happiness. I am grateful that I come from a generation that has time to think about it, or to make it a goal.

Life with my grandparents did not consist of much joy and levity, or gratitude and celebration of life.

I wonder how many of that generation of Jewish immigrants that endured grave trauma in the old country really thought about that.

But my grandparents seemed to be happy together.

I slept at their house in Ottawa once not long before my grandfather died and I could hear them talking and laughing in bed. It made me happy and sad all at the same time. I was glad they had that, but I regretted that they never shared it much with us.

My grandmother had little patience for us when we were kids and we felt it. She and Zaida had their thing. They watched a lot of TV, providing ongoing commentary like the Bubby and Zaidy version of pop-up videos, or Beavis and Butthead from the Pale of Settlement.

Every time we went there when we were kids, after she would make us take our evening baths, our Bubby and Zaida would revel in Lawrence Welk. Even at five, I thought it was nerdy. Hee Haw was no better, but also a preferred form of entertainment for them.

I once watched the Miss America pageant with them and scribbled their dialogue into my diary. It was that good. The whole scene was a feminist nightmare…or a super-joke…depending on how you looked at it.

Bubby and Zaida had their ways. The particular things they ate. Their habitual visits to the synagogue. Their routine, unpunctuated by any kind of adventure; unbroken by fun surprises.

They never invited us for a Passover Seder or called us on our birthdays. But my father called them all the time.

They prided themselves on not having gone to see a film since the mid-1970s when Fiddler on the Roof was out.

“Movies, these days,” My grandfather once said, “they’re just not what they used to be.” He said the same thing about food and kids.

“How would you know if you haven’t been to the cinema since 1976,” I asked him in what was probably around 1999.

If you could detach from it, however, it was pure comedy, unrelenting, unbridled entertainment.

Best movie–EVER. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

My grandmother sometimes baked us cinnamon cookies that we all liked. Our dog, Buksi, adored them. We graciously shared with him many things that were probably, in the interest of canine health, best kept away.

Nothing against Bubby, but she would have been appalled. She hated dogs. In return, Buksi didn’t like her much either. I don’t think she was fond of animals in general. I always thought that was messed up. I think it was because she didn’t like anything that might be in some way dirty.

But as a saving grace, she loved plants and had many in her home. She brought her foil-covered pots to her room at the Hillel Lodge where they filled her windows.

My grandmother also loved to knit and read novels. She gave us gifts of (shortish) scarves that she had fashioned with her unsteady hands at the Lodge. I liked my gray scarf. It went well with my green coat and I bought gloves and a hat to match.

My best memories of her are those last years of her life when she was at the Lodge. I think it’s because I had changed. I had made the decision to love her unconditionally, to respect her and appreciate who she was regardless of any flaws I might have perceived in the past.

I realized how if you show someone that you love them without judgment or wanting anything in return, you create space for love to be shared. If you are loving with someone who has difficulty opening up, you give them permission to ease up a little.

By really being loving with someone who does not easily express love, you help them along. Maybe this doesn’t work with everyone, but it worked with Bubby.

I started behaving as if I was the grandma and she were the child—telling her I loved her, being really affectionate, bringing little gifts.

She finally started to tell me she loved me. I would sit beside her and hold her hand and talk to her about boys. And sometimes, when her dementia was acting up, she would act really childlike. She seemed excited to feel that I was confiding in her about my feelings and secrets. She would smile and laugh and squeeze my fingers and ask me:

“Will you be my friend?”

“Yes,” I would tell her. “I’ll be your friend.” And I realized that really being friends with someone was not easy for her. She was afraid. Yet with the innocence of an insecure schoolgirl, she was still hopeful and ready to let down her guard if you made her feel safe.

Being with her this way helped me see the woman, the human being who was never nourished, behind the character she always played or the mask she had always worn. Or the wounds she had always kept close to the surface. I let myself see her beauty and she became beautiful.

Every time I went she would offer me up another one of her plants. I don’t know if she knew how much I loved plants, but they were the perfect gift for me. Another time, she gave me a little photo album she had decorated with shiny stickers—like a kindergarten kid’s surprise.

We got her to sing old Yiddish songs finding words from the vestiges of long forgotten memories still there somewhere inside her. A few times she broke out into old Russian ballads—a language I had never heard her speak in all the years I’d known her. I was touched by the joy on her face as she sang, and to remember that the capacity for joy is possible at any point in time when we accept to be in the moment.

My grandmother wanted to teach me how to knit. So I brought her needles and yarn. I hoped in vain for some kind of legacy that she could pass on to me. But her hands shook unrelentingly and she would impatiently grab the needles from me when she was unhappy with my progress.

“It’s like this!” She tried to show me again. But I couldn’t figure out what she was doing. But I liked that we tried.

Like she had all her life, she would get her hair done on Fridays, and then tell us how much everyone was “plutzing” over her new hairdo. She prided herself on taking care of herself.

She was also proud to maintain the tradition of going to synagogue every Saturday, as well as taking care of her own washing. She didn’t trust that the Lodge would do her laundry well enough.

“There are a lot of old people here”, she said. “They put all kinds of verkakte clothes in the wash. It’s dirty.”

She would often complain about all the old people in the place. She thought they were much older than she was, and that she was much younger than she really was. Which was not really that realistic since she was going to turn 99 this Thursday.

When she started to decline, she was found wandering in the lobby a couple times. She said she wanted to go home.

I don’t think she meant back to the house where she lived with her husband for over fifty years. I’m pretty sure she meant something deeper, some place where she truly belonged. Like there was a part of her that could feel it. Somewhere safe and accepting of her, where she could be with those who loved her—her husband, her daughter, her brother, her parents… in some hereafter world of celestial friends who would love her as she had always longed to be loved.

The very best thing about my grandmother besides what I consider a happy ending to our grandmother-granddaughter relationship is that she gave us our dad—our loving, dedicated father, who was also always a loving and dedicated son. He did all he could to be the most caring and supportive presence in her life, in all our lives. And, whatever our challenges, whatever our shtick, our dad (with the help of mom, of course!) gave us…us.

I am grateful for this—for the lives and the living that my grandmother’s life gave, and will continue to give even after her passing. I appreciate that we are here, breathing, always with the opportunity to grow, to learn, to love, to forgive—to respect each other’s journeys, lessons, challenges, wounds, fears or insecurities. To know in looking at life and all its “stuff”, that each life has value, its own rhyme or reason, and its purpose.

God bless Diana Hershorn (pronounced Dinah, like Dinah Shore). May she be guided and supported to find her way and her peace, and to live the beauty, truth and purity of her “neshama”.

Bubby, I love you—whoever and wherever you are.