I didn’t truly experience death for the first time until I was 23. It was my grandfather, my Pop-Pop. He was 80 years old. He had survived a couple heart attacks, and a stroke, and a million other health problems. He was a walking miracle. But it was time for him to go.
I was expecting it. I had been preparing for it for a couple of years, mentally and emotionally. I flew into Philadelphia to see him when we knew things had gotten bad, and he died less than two hours after I got off the plane. I was able to look into his warm eyes and see them crinkle when he tried to smile. I got to hold his hand while it was still warm. I had a chance to say goodbye. This is a weird word to use, but his death went very smoothly. His whole family was there and it was peaceful and everyone got to tell him they loved him. I was lucky to experience my first loss in this way. I was lucky that I didn’t have to experience it until my 24th year of life. But it still tore me apart.
I dreamt about him almost every night for months afterwards. It has simmered down since then, but I still have dreams frequently. In these dreams, Pop-Pop is always happy and full of life. His cheeks are rosy and he’s smiling at me. He’s alive, but my conscience, even in my dream, knows he has passed away. “My mom misses you so much, Pop-Pop,” I always say in one way or another. “We all miss you.”
He smiles, but he never says anything back to me. I think it’s because I can’t remember his voice as clearly anymore.
I saw death happen as a kid. But it was always a distant relative or a neighbor or a teacher. I understood that it was sad, and I always felt a feeling of dread. I felt upset for the people experiencing the loss, but I never fully grasped it myself. I don’t think you ever fully understand death until you lose someone close to you for the first time.
I obviously cannot say for sure, but I imagine that experiencing death for the first time as a kid, compared to experiencing it for the first time as a young adult, is much different. And I don’t mean being exposed to death. I mean really, truly feeling the pain of it. I don’t think the pain is necessarily stronger or weaker at different ages. I just imagine it’s different.
As a kid, I wonder if death feels like a freak accident. If it’s this weird, unexpected thing that tears your heart out, but that you hope will go away with time. Because you’re so young. And everyone around you is so young. And these things don’t normally happen. And it’ll be okay.
As a young adult, I know that all I could think in the beginning was, here we go. This is the start. It’s a horribly morbid thought, I know. But I was overwhelmed and consumed with it for the first few days after losing Pop-Pop. All I could think was that this was just the beginning of a long life of having to say good-bye and having to watch people leave me.
I had panic attacks for months after that. They always came out of nowhere, so I didn’t realize at first that they were stemming from Pop-Pop’s death. I would just be laying in bed, or walking around at work, or driving in my car, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I was trapped inside my own head and the world around me wasn’t real. People would talk to me and I didn’t hear them. It sometimes felt like I was under water. I think my brain was just becoming aware of how fragile everything suddenly seemed.
After Pop-Pop died, death and loss and sadness became terrifyingly real to me. For those first few days after losing someone, you have no sense of time. You’re just either awake or asleep. You’re not sure if it’s time to be eating cereal or if you should take a shower right now or if it’s 6 at night or 6 in the morning. After someone leaves you, you’re just surprised that the rest of the world keeps going. The news still comes on at night and people that aren’t your family still go to work. You’re not sure how you’re ever supposed to fit back into this routine that seems so normal and regular and painless.
When Pop-Pop died, my entire extended family was at the hospital for hours, crying and hugging him and trying to make his body warm again. But eventually, they had to take him away and we were faced with the strange sensation of realizing we were hungry. We went to a pizza place and ordered several pizzas and sat down. I remember staring at the waitress and thinking how weird it was that she was waiting tables even though Pop-Pop was gone.
The grief inside my chest was so strong that I felt like I could throw it up. I saw it mirrored in my siblings and cousins, and I saw it increase tenfold in my mom’s face. Her grief was so palpable that I was surprised I couldn’t actually touch it with my hands. It felt so heavy that I thought I should be able to pick it up and run my fingers through it.
I think the thought that struck me most of all though, was how the person who seemed to have it the easiest in this entire thing was Pop-Pop. He had been hooked up to IV’s and jabbed with needles and he couldn’t eat and he was scared. He suffered physically, yes. But he was ready to go. When he did, he was surrounded by dozens of loved ones who were holding his hands and rubbing his hair and telling him he could go on, while they sobbed into tissues and into each other. It’s the getting left behind that’s truly the hard part.
Pop-Pop’s death scared me because everyone became glass after that. My parents and my siblings and my friends and my boyfriend. They’re all so breakable. I laugh with them and hug them and ask for their advice and smile with them. But even in the most joyous moments, sometimes I catch myself staring at them, trying to memorize their scent and remember every feature of their face. Sometimes when I’m close enough, I listen and feel for the blood pumping through their veins, just so that I can appreciate them in this moment and the fact that they’re breathing. Because at any time, they could be gone.
At some point, after losing someone, the world goes back to normal for you. You go back to work and you sit at happy hour with your friends and you don’t feel weird when you smile. But even though it all seems normal, it all looks different after you’ve lost someone for the first time. Everyone around you is glass, and you’re just wandering around, trying to hold them while they’re warm.