My grandma came home today.
One year, three months, and six days after I sat by her side as she took her last breath, she arrived at my door by courier, packaged in a shoe-sized box neatly and respectfully wrapped in brown kraft-paper.
Four hundred sixty-three days since she died under a full moon early on a stunning fall morning and we walked her body outside to a waiting tan minivan emblazoned with the University of Minnesota logo, where it was taken as a donation to the Anatomy Bequest Program per her planning and final wishes, she’s returned.
Of course, the contents of this box I received isn’t “her”, but her ashes; the real, weighty physicality of what was once her body. The cheeks I had kissed, the back that I rubbed, the hands I once held, and that had once held me. It’s impossible to imagine that this is what’s left of her, but after so many months of having to remind myself all over again that she’s gone, it is a physical reminder of what my heart has lost, and I am grateful.
My grandma was like a second mom to me, from the very beginning. We were extremely close, and I knew from an early age how special this was. On multiple occasions as a kid, she’d drop me off places and the parents of my friends would ask about my mom and I’d have to correct them and say she was my grandma. Perhaps they seemed surprised for other reasons, but I took their astonishment as a reflection of wonder in our closeness and felt in their reaction a sense of pride. Being with her so presently throughout our lives together, and in her dying time, was a gift and an honor. As is the opportunity now to welcome her home.
We had a birthday party for her within the month after she died – she would have turned 94 – but we never held any kind of a service. With her body at the U, with her journey seeming not quite complete, it didn’t seem right and our family decided to wait until her ashes were returned to do so. Some donors get returned right away, while others take upwards of a year or more, sometimes up to 18 months. We were one of the families with a longer wait, which means to me that she’s been doing some very good work. And while I absolutely respect her wishes and am beyond impressed with her willingness to offer her body to further the education of students all over the state, even with all I’ve seen in my work as an End of Life Doula, I had absolutely no idea how hard it would be to forgo a formal gathering for this long.
To be clear, I don’t believe in closure – that seems too easy. The idea of closure seems too final, too neat and tidy, as if in one moment things are falling apart in the messiness of grief, and in the very next, everything is nice, and peaceful, and settled. Aspiring to closure implies that there is a destination to strive for, and that if we grieve correctly and bide our time, at some point we will be “done”.
If I’ve learned anything in my life and in my work, it’s that grief is a relationship we tend to over the course of our entire lives, one that never ends, even when we wish it would.
And yet, something undeniable happened to me the moment the box of my grandma’s ashes was in my arms. A sense of rightness washed over me that I can’t quite describe, as if the displacement I’ve felt since the van holding her body drove away all those many months ago made sense. Beyond the tears and the visceral relief I felt receiving her home, was the reality of connection – a remembering of her deep in my bones, as I held tight to what was left of hers.
This being human, being in a body, is a peculiar thing. I realize now how there are some things that can only be known by experiencing them physically. I imagine it’s one of the reasons we search so long and hard when a loved one goes missing – we need the tangible proof of them in order to put some transitory part of our being to rest. We spend so much time in our heads trying to think our way to understanding, largely oblivious of our body and its interrelatedness with soul and the wisdom they hold. And yet it seems the animal nature of us needs the physical experience of a death in order for it to really register that a transformation has taken place.
So, while I may not call the experience of receiving my grandma home “closure” in the traditional sense of the word, I can say it feels as though a part of my heart has returned. The breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding all these months has finally released, and a tension that hums throughout my body has started to relax.
And when the tension and the sadness sneak back in, as they inevitably will, I will pick up the box with her ashes again (and again…) and let the weight of her settle me back into knowing.//