Losing my grandmother, exactly one year ago today, was the first major death that I have experienced. I am incredibly lucky and privileged to have almost reached 30 and still be surrounded by so many of those who I grew up with, met along the way, and continue to love. Losing someone who was integral to my upbringing and to whom I credit so much, was more devastating and life-shattering than I ever expected it to be. As we knew her time was drawing to a close, I spent every possible moment in the hospital and assisted with her care as much as I could in the last couple of months. Despite all this, I was drastically underprepared for the shock, upheaval, and devastation that would occur.
Writing this piece was incredibly emotional but cathartic. My heart hurt from reflecting on her passing but also swelled with love from recollecting memories. These reactions and others were welcomed over the past few weeks as I tried to sort out how to manage time, appropriately recognize the milestone I was approaching, and prepare for how I would feel today. I felt that this time spent writing was an honor and testament to her and also to me and the work that I have done this past year.
A few months after my grandmother died, I was back in my tattoo artist’s chair. I hadn’t planned on getting a second tattoo this past year but then I hadn’t planned on losing her either. I visited her memorial site once with my grandfather; it was a beautiful, serene, and quiet. I don’t know what I expected to happen or what other people experience in cemeteries but I didn’t feel anything. It was disappointing to say the least because, as an atheist, it was incredibly important for me to remember and commemorate her during my lifetime. The moment I finished designing my
tattoo, I knew it was what I needed. Through it, I am able to carry a piece of her spirit and love with me everywhere. I feel our times together, hear her sarcasm and wit, and see the vibrancy that she brought to the world.
After she passed, I felt that it was important to pause and reflect on whether I was living exactly how I wanted. It sounds a bit cliché, I’m sure – life is short, we should make the most, blah blah blah. I know, I get it. But, it’s true and we all have limited resources and energy to expend and therefore a re-evaluation is never a bad thing. My grandmother’s ability to connect with others, to show love, joy and appreciation, to believe in herself, and her continuous faith that things can always change for the better were all things that I admired about her. She was so full of life up until the end and it was hard to let go of the times we could have shared and things she could have taught me. I wanted to emulate these characteristics that I admired but rather than mirror them I wanted to incorporate them into who I had become as an individual. My initial thoughts as to where this would lead and how long it would take were wildly incorrect. I have pushed myself in ways that I either haven’t thought of or actively avoided in the past. I tried to be more in touch with myself and what I needed rather than solely focusing on the needs of those around me. I’ve presented a more accurate and honest representation of myself, although that will always be a work in progress. It would be impossible to recount all of the experiences and shifts that have happened or the lessons I’ve learned but I wanted to take the time to outline a few.
I’ve taken more chances with friendships this past year, both new and old. Previously, I was extremely cautious meeting new people and allowing them to get to know me. I refocused conversations so that they revolved around the other person and am a champ at delivering evasive answers. Even with established friendships, I was terrible at reaching out, asking for help, and talking about problems. I tried to shake that off as much as possible as I forged new friendships and worked to deepen existing ones. I continuously learn that it is okay (and encouraged) to be vulnerable around others and that I don’t have to be the main support for myself and my friends. I believe that Grammy really understood the need for this equal exchange. She frequently provided support to others and was there to listen to their jokes, stories, or concerns. However, she also knew that opening yourself up to and accepting help/support from others was just as important. It is this second piece that I’ve struggled with and that I’ve challenged myself to do more of over the past year.
On the flip side, I’ve evaluated and decided to take a step back from other friendships. The reasons why have ranged but include recognizing that I’m putting in more effort than the other individual or that the relationship isn’t reflective of the changes or growth that I have made or the person I want to be. It’s hard to let go of some individuals because of the love and history that is so often still there. However, this isn’t always reason enough to continue a relationship into the future. People evolve and therefore it makes sense that our connections and relationships to each other would evolve and shift as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although it did take me a considerable amount of time to learn that. Moving forward doesn’t invalidate the past, the benefits of the relationship, nor the times spent together. I can still think of these people and reflect on the happiness, shared memories, and how we both benefitted from shared spaces and lives. Despite moving in different directions, I have the option of checking in every once in a while and/or wishing them happiness and success as we both move forward.
Being more honest and open with others means that I’ve been more honest and open with myself in the process. I’ve learned a lot here that I’m not ready to delve into quite yet. It will suffice to say that Grammy saw a lot more of who I am than I was able to for a long time. I treasure many of our conversations and her comments about my character, behaviors, and attitudes so much more now.
I quit my job of 3.5 years in February, a job where I loved my colleagues, the communities I worked in, and the work itself. I quit without another job prospect, offer, or really any type of direction. I told people that the environment was no longer supportive nor allowing me to grow. I still believe that this is absolutely true, however, I am unsure if I would have made this decision if Grammy hadn’t died. I don’t know if any other event could have shook me so hard and made me realize that I was moving through the motions, lacking motivation, and losing my sense of self and self-worth. I was so entrenched in doing the work and participating in the movement at any cost and wasn’t aware of the impact that was actually having on me. Being shaken made me realize that I deserved better and that my current situation was slowly burning my spirit and love for the movement, the people involved, and the societal change that I so desperately wanted to create. I cannot look at this long sabbatical from the work force and not see it as intricately linked to the death of my grandmother but that is indeed what I initially did. I needed these past five months for so many more reasons than I originally thought. By over committing myself in work and being overwhelmed by others’ traumas on a daily basis, I was left without the emotional capacity to do any personal work or adequate self-care. I blocked out my own feelings and experiences because it was necessary to get through the day. Except I didn’t ignore things for just a day—it was years of blocking my feelings and needs to care for others and manage professional responsibilities. When I quit, it was terrifying to experience the walls crumbling around me. I was hit with years of trauma (belonging to both me and others), pain, grief, and exhaustion. It took weeks to sort through and differentiate what went where so that I could start to do the important work of healing, recovery, and piecing myself back together.
Perhaps that is why, despite being out of work for so long, I never picked up a part-time, retail, or restaurant job. Any of these would have been viable options and were discussed multiple times between myself and my partner, friends, and family. Instead, I relished the time by myself and the internal healing and questioning that I was able to do.
Winter always carries a higher risk of depressive periods for me and, unsurprisingly, this past winter was much more difficult and many of my usual solutions and coping mechanisms were ineffective. One method that I often use is to dress in clothing with bright colors and patterns. While many people may not see the differences between how I dress when I’m depressed and how I dress on the regular, there is a difference especially in the motivations behind what I am picking out. For instance, I will try to use specific pieces, colors, or accessories as reminders of people, times, or emotions. The bright colors and underlying motivations serve as one way to ground me during the day. However, even this method was only slightly helpful. One day, I ended up in a stylist’s chair asking for a more colorful
and dramatic hair style than I had ever had in the past. For over a year at this point, I had kept streaks of purple in my hair after a spontaneous night of fun with my younger sister. I took a chance that incorporating color directly onto my body rather than just through outfits would be a more effective strategy. I wound up with a magical mix of blues and fuchsias. It served as a daily reminder to me of the vibrancy and beauty in the world and my own spirit when I needed it. And I needed it a lot this winter.
When I made the decision to take a step back from living life in the status quo, I was able to see and experience things that had become routine in a new perspective. Once again, biking over the Mass. Ave bridge and seeing the Boston city skyline makes me catch my breath. I’m in love with this city and its beauty. I allow an extra second or two to appreciate a hug or to recognize the positive energy that someone is bringing to a moment. I frequently close my eyes while running to feel the sun, wind, and smells and the connection of my feet on the pavement. I’ve become more involved in community organizations and groups and met some amazing and inspiring people who encourage laughter and new challenges. Each day brings multiple moments to appreciate, soak in, and carry with me. It isn’t just the larger achievements or moments that deserve recognition or special attention. It’s what is in the everyday that brings beauty, love, and connection to the world and people around me.
I would not have been able to take this time and focus on myself had it not been for my partner. Without a doubt, he has seen every shift and change in me over the past year, every peak and low, and the slowly rebuilt sense of self-worth. I do wonder how these changes compare to the woman he met and fell in love with eight years ago. We promised to always grow and change as individuals and this past year has been a testament to our desire to do that together. As I took steps to reengage and embrace the world around me, I realized just how closed off I had been. My true smile and laugh has become abundantly more present and prominent. I’ve pulled
him along my path of renewed fascination with life and he has willingly engaged and encouraged me along the way. I’ve cried and allowed negative feelings to sweep over me rather than buttoning down the hatches and ignoring the impacts. I’ve been vulnerable, asked for help, and allowed him to take the lead. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve fallen in love with him all over again for reasons new and old.
Never once has he asked me to rush, to pick up a job I didn’t want, or to do anything during this time that I have not wanted to do. Instead, he has supported each and every thing I have undertaken and, more importantly, when I didn’t undertake something. I have been able to rely on him for love, support, time, money, resources, direction, and a sounding board. I think that he understood why this time was so integral and long overdue before I did. I wish I could say that this is a rare occasion but despite all my talents at interpreting and reading others’ behaviors, personalities, and body language, I am still terrible at doing it for myself. Over the past year and especially the last five months, he has allowed me the time to parse out and interpret my behaviors and try new directions because he knows how important that time and independence is to me. I’m so incredibly grateful and lucky to have a partner who truly understands me even when I don’t understand myself and is willing to withstand the journey that I and we have been on in the past year.
As August 1st approaches, I’m feeling so many things. I miss my grandmother every single day and sometimes that results in smiles and laughter and other times in tears. I’m hurting for and celebrating with the many other friends and family who loved her. I’m proud of how well I’ve handled this time and the changes that have come. Most recently, I’ve felt clarity in what I want for myself. I believe that there will be a lot of changes for me again soon and I look forward to this new chapter. I feel ready, able, and confident to start this next year. For me, August now marks the New Year, rather than cold and dreary January. When I feel most at home running on the pavement, this change feels very fitting. The summer sun is still encouraging us to engage with each other and the world and I intend to continue finding where I fit.
I thought that this clarity, direction, and refreshed outlook on life would come after obtaining a new job. But, like so many other times this year, I have been proven wrong. My job isn’t the defining feature of who I am or what I contribute to society. It’s not a standard of which to measure my credibility, value, or self-worth. Therefore, it now makes sense to me that clarity and closure would come separate from my job search and employment status. I get to define myself each and every day and that is both incredibly exciting and terrifying. What matters are the connections I make, the community I help build, and the contributions I provide to my networks, friends, and family.
I did this past year for Grammy but also for me. I like to think that we did it together and because of that I am able to carry an even bigger piece of her everywhere I go.