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On Life and Loss: A Tribute to My Grandmother

Grandmom and Jessica
My Grandmom had serious style. Case in point: our matching outfits.

On Monday night, God welcomed a very special angel into heaven: my grandmother.

After months of suffering, we sadly said goodbye to an amazing woman, who brought joy to so many throughout her 84 years on earth.

A wife, sister, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, nurse, volunteer and devout Catholic, my Grandmom selflessly gave of herself, all the way up to her final weeks.

I’ve had the blessing of knowing her for nearly 25 years. Countless memories of family parties, Christmases and summers spent at her shore house fill my heart with happiness, even during this difficult time.

Over the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about my grandmother and the impact she had on my life, and the lives of all those she touched. After some serious reflection, I’ve pared down everything my grandmother has taught me into three core lessons that I hope to carry with me throughout the rest of my life, in her honor:

1. Always help those less fortunate. My family used to joke that when my Grandmother eventually did pass away, she’d have an automatic pass to heaven, if not, sainthood. My grandmother always searched for opportunities to help others whether it was volunteering at her church pantry, delivering communion to the sick or driving the elderly to doctor’s appointments. A month ago, when we had to move her into a dementia unit of an assisted living facility, she busied herself with wheeling around those who couldn’t walk and visiting with patients, as though she was an employee or volunteer at the facility, and not a patient, herself. Case in point: she was most happy when she was helping others.

2. Find joy in the small moments. About a month ago, my sister and I visited my grandmother at the assisted living facility. It was the last time we saw her that she was still herself, and remembered who we were. She showed us around her new home and told us a lively story about the Mummers coming to visit the patients. She described the day and even showed off her dance moves, all with a big smile on her face. The fact that this single encounter brought her so much joy, and a happy memory, even in the midst of so much turmoil and change in her life (and brain) reminds me that it’s extremely important to cherish every single small (and large) moment.

3. Trust in God. My grandmother was a spiritual person and strong Catholic, relying on prayer and her confidence in the Holy Spirit to get her through tough times. While I’m not an extremely religious person, it is comforting to know that there is a higher power out there, and even more comforting to know that my grandmother is certainly in a better place. As my sister Jamie beautifully wrote on Facebook, “‘l’ll never forget the time you told us that the Holy Spirit was ‘your man.’ Letting go is never easy, but we can smile because we know you’re looking over us in the company of your two men: Pop Pop and the Holy Spirit.”

Just as important as the lessons my grandmother taught me throughout my life, over the past few weeks, I’ve seen someone else very special to me shine: my dad.

When my grandmother’s health began to decline, all of my grandmother’s six children stepped in, but of course, I most intimately witnessed my dad’s role in the process. I admired the fact that he put his entire life on hold to be there for his mother, a strange role reversal that I certainly don’t look forward to, as I grow older. Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned from my amazing dad:

1. You have to laugh. My dad can find humor in every situation, no matter how serious or sad. When most of my family members (myself included) sat around my grandmother’s hospice room crying, my dad would swoop in with a joke or silly story, and the entire room would relax for a moment and just laugh. As my dad says, “You just have to laugh…otherwise, what’s the point?” And you do.

2. Don’t question gut decisions. Over the past week, I’ve heard my dad use the old adage, “If ‘ifs and buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a party.” At first, I didn’t understand what he meant. But after discussing it over and over again this past week, I understood that it meant that we couldn’t waste time wondering, “what if?” We couldn’t question the decisions that had been made that led us to where we were at that moment in time. My dad taught me that you need to make educated decisions and then be confident in those decisions, down the road, never regretting anything.

3. Family first. As I mentioned above, my dad has been there for his mom every step of the way, spending hours on end at various living facilities, ER visits, hospital stays and finally, hospice. I never once heard him complain about his role in the process, even though I know the stress was unbearable. Even in the midst of being there for his mother, he never missed an opportunity to see my brother play basketball, cook a delicious dinner for the family or spend time with our puppy, Buddy. He flawlessly balanced all aspects of his life, knowing how important it was to be there for his mom, but also ensuring he took good care of his family, just like he has all our lives. My dad puts family first, above all else, and I hope to do the same when I have a family of my own.

So, even though this has been a difficult week for my entire family, we are all comforted by the fact that my grandmother is in a better place, safe and happy. And as she wrote in a letter to her children many years ago before she left for an overseas trip, “I’ll see you in heaven.”

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Meet Jessica

I live by the saying “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and help others do the same to reach their biggest, brightest goals. Read my story here.

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