A Second Chance at Grief
In this piece from our Commentary Series, Camille Petersen reflects on her experiences dealing with grief.
About a year ago, my grandma died.
There are two things I remember most about the final week of her life.
First, the last smile she gave me. She was in a shared hospital room. A flat screen TV mounted on a beige wall showed images of calm, pristine rivers and played the kind of piano music that has no beginning, middle, or end.
Her eyes were shut. But when I held her hand, she opened them and smiled so big her eyes became tiny. She kept smiling but clenched her eyes shut. I recognized this smile. She’d given it to me my entire life, across kitchen tables and during long car rides. When she smiled at me in the hospital, she didn’t remember my name or who I was. But the smile was the same.
After a few days in the hospital, she came back to my grandpa’s house. My grandpa set up a makeshift hospital bed for her in the living room. She was alive but unconscious.
The second thing I remember about that time is the sound of her breath while she was home. For days, she was gasping for air.
The sound haunted me. I heard it once in the ventilation of a hotel room. I thought about switching rooms but figured I’d hear the sound in every one.
My grandma died a few days after coming home. There was a lot to do for the funeral. My mom and I tried to handle everything. We picked flowers… an urn…a casket. We went through my grandma’s closet to pick out the clothes and jewelry she could be dressed in for the wake.
I was in charge of the funeral playlist. I vaguely remembered the opera songs my grandma used to play for us. But not completely. I Googled lyrics and searched “popular opera songs.”
(MUSIC – O Mio Babbino Caro)
I tried to name her favorite singers…Luciano Pavarotti. Andrea Bocelli.
(MUSIC – Con Te Partiro)
I remembered how my grandma used to beg me to sit on the couch with her and watch recordings of Met Opera performances.
This wasn’t the first time someone in my family died. When I was two, my father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. When I was eight, he died from it, suddenly, in his sleep.
After he died, I didn’t know how to comfort my mom. I couldn’t contribute anything to funeral arrangements like my older siblings could. I was too young to help.
And that made me feel like I wasn’t loving my father enough. Like I failed him.
I’ve never lost that feeling.
So when my grandma died, I felt like I was getting a second chance at grief. A chance to prove I knew how to honor someone I loved and to care for my family members as they grieved.
There was a mass after my grandma’s wake. After mass, her casket was wheeled out to the front of the church.
It was sunny. Chirping birds were in a kind of surround sound circle above the church.
I was standing between my grandpa and mom. And as my grandma’s casket was loaded into the back of a hearse, I put one arm around each of them.
It smelled like April — grass and dirt.
Every spring, my grandma would take me into her backyard garden and teach me to plant scallions.
She gave me a small shovel and a teal foam pad to kneel on. And when I did something wrong, she gave me that familiar smile.
She didn’t correct me. She just let me figure it out on my own.