Delayed Grief, Abiding Love, And Do Not Talk To Me Of Starbursts.

grief starburst

We were three women having fun. That was the last time I ate Starbursts. I think grief, candy, and reality are all a little bit related.

Three years ago, I opened a bag of Starbursts and started crying.

My partner and I were sitting in the car at a drive-in movie theatre when I burst into tears. My sobs were strong enough to wreck my mascara and create the need to blow my nose into the scratchy fast-food napkins.

My uncontrollable sobbing only lasted a few minutes, but it was unusual for a few reasons:

  1. The movie hadn’t even started yet. The sun had just set, and the sky was that amazing blue-grey colour that exists only for three minutes at dusk and in interior paint isle swatches that never look quite the same on the wall. A box of our favourite pizza sat perched on the dashboard, we had two bottles of soda, and a bag of popcorn all prepared for the release of a movie we’d eagerly anticipated for months. This was, by all accounts, a Pinterest-perfect date night.

  2. I don’t usually cry, let alone cry in front of other people. At the time, after eight years of friendship, my partner had only seen me cry maybe three times. I don’t think he knew what to do and by the time he asked, “Are you okay?” I was already done crying. It stopped as soon as it arrived instead of slowly sputtering out like a leaky fountain.

  3. I didn’t know why I was crying.

This last reason was the most distressing.

I balled up my surrogate tissues and tossed them into the trash. I swallowed three or four times, trying to will the mysterious lump in my throat that always shows up when I cry to disappear.

“What was that about?” my partner asked.

He knew me well enough to not make eye contact. He pretended to be very interested in the license plate of the car in front of us. I wiped my mascara off my cheek. I laughed because I was not sure what else to do.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I just cried for three minutes for no reason. This was not a reality I was accustomed to.

Five months earlier, my Grandmother died. I did not cry when we walked into the nursing home and I saw her body lying in the bed. I did not cry when we received the time of death. I did not cry when my mom called the undertaker to pick up the body. Her body. I wrestled with the implication death had turned the person I loved from present to past tense, from human to object.

I did not cry when I dialed my partner’s number into the phone. I did not cry when he picked up.

“Hey, we’re at the nursing home and I need to tell you….” I said.

I cried before I could finish the sentence.

Words have the power to create reality. We bring something into being by naming it. Words help us shift from present to past tense: my Grandmother is to my Grandmother was.

My Grandmother is dead shifted and created a reality very different from My Grandmother is alive. My body stayed the same but the space it existed Until I said those words, in my partner’s reality, my Grandmother was still alive.

After that first phone call, I learned to anticipate the realities that would bring me to tears. I learned to predict when grief would punch me in the gut and steal my breath because she’s gone and this is real.

I waited for the pain and invited it into my body when I received the call that I was accepted into graduate school. She would never know that I was going to become a therapist. She would never again reassure me that I was a harder worker, that if I kept going, one day I could get a doctorate. I would never again hear the words I believe in you come from her mouth. The words I’m going to grad school created the reality of my grandmother will never know.

Words have the power to create, but so do actions, and so I learned to anticipate grief in the actions that cycle through the year.

I anticipated my grief and welcomed it into our dining room table on Mother’s Day, when grief took the empty seat that my Grandmother used to fill. Grief was there instead of the potted plant my Grandmother would get for my mom every year. Grief hung on the empty space of her fridge instead of the cards she made for us.

Grief came to my sister’s birthday party. Grief waited for us in an empty mailbox; the action of sending and receiving a birthday card is one reserved exclusively for the living. Grief found me unexpectedly when I was printing out photographs. Habits are actions formed over time and it was a habit to print out an 5×10 print for someone with poor Eyesite.

The reality in all these scenarios is that the person I love is dead and I am a different person now because of it.

I did not cry during any of these times because I knew grief was coming and I welcomed grief like a distant relative. Grief’s presence was comforting and familiar. Grief let me reminiscent over those memories. Grief said to me, I know you cared for the person who is gone.

The problem with trying to predict when my reality is going to change is that reality is, by its nature, unpredictable. We cannot always predict the moments that make us a different person.

When I unwrapped one of the star bursts, I understood why I cried.

I popped the candy into my mouth and let it melt. I offered one to my partner, who turned it down with a wave of his hand. He said, “They’re too sweet for me.”

I have a vicious sweet tooth and I think I can thank (or blame) my grandmother. Having lived with diabetes, my Grandmother taught me not to focus on the absence of candy from her daily life but to celebrate each moment she had a piece as a special treat.

Before she died, my Grandmother, like most elderly women in the USA, found herself in the nursing home. My Grandmother was fiercely independent. My grandfather died before a year I was born, so for over twenty years, my Grandmother lived in a rural home by herself. She drove, shopped, cooked, and cleaned alone. Her hobbies—reading, watching Antiques roadshow, crocheting—did not need the involvement of other people to be fulfilling.

To be in a nursing home, to be surrounded by and constantly checked in on by other people, was a very different reality for my grandmother.

My Grandmother had a roommate named Franny.

I think there is a misconception about the elderly in nursing homes. I think people see them as people waiting to die, and this is an absolute shame, because the reality is that Franny and my Grandmother were very much alive.

One day, I brought a bag of starbursts when I came to visit them.

“Grammy, do you want one?” I offered.

“Yes, but only the pink ones, none of the yellow ones,” she said. “You can give those to Franny. She likes them.”

I divvied the candy and handed several to my grandmother and several to Franny.

Franny, as it turns out, does not like yellow Starbursts.

 “You eat this one,” she said. “Send some of those pink ones down here.”

She threw a yellow one at my grandmother.

My grandmother threw the Starburst back.

Franny threw it again and it bounced off the table and went flying into the hallway.

We burst into laughter.

It’s hard to explain why this was funny.

Maybe it was the way both women went ‘oooooh’ like school girls expecting to get into trouble. Maybe it was because a yellow Starbust just shot out towards the nurses’ station. Maybe it was because Franny and my grandmother sushed each other, like they were supposed to be being quiet, but there was no rule you had to be quiet.  Whatever the reason, we kept laughing harder and harder. I had tears coming down my face.

For one moment, this was not a picture of a dutiful young granddaughter coming to visit an elderly woman and her roommate in death’s waiting room. For one moment, we were three women enjoying each other’s company. Our ages didn’t matter. Our physical health didn’t matter. The location didn’t matter.

In this reality, we were three women having fun.

That was the last time I ate Starbursts.

Until now.

I think grief, candy, and reality are all a little bit related.

 I can focus on what is missing from my life. I can focus on the actions and thoughts and situations that remind me my grandmother is gone. I can focus on these moments and invite grief in to save off my tears.

The reality is that my Grandmother is gone and I am a different person because of it.

I can focus, too, on just how sweet it is to feel so sad. I can focus on what a profound impact my grandmother had that the simple act of opening a bag of candy in my boyfriend’s car is enough for grief to catch me off guard.

The reality is that my Grandmother was once very alive and I am a different person because of it.