A version of this essay was originally published in the Swarthmorean.
A year ago, my father, sisters, and I were making plans for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. The milestone was due in October 2021, and we wanted to be sure we gave ourselves enough time to plan. We wanted to give ample notice to loved ones far and wide so that they could be in attendance. It felt like a foregone conclusion that my Nannie would celebrate her 90th birthday.
On July 8, 2020, barely more than a dozen of us gathered together in St. Peter’s Church in Parsippany, New Jersey. My husband, father, uncle, and sister carried Nannie down the aisle in her sparkling white coffin.
I did my best to make it through a reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, but my voice cracked as I read, “… a time to be born, and a time to die.” Of her three sons, one was unable to make it, stuck in Florida with his wife and children as the COVID cases in the state continued to climb. Cousins in Texas and Connecticut watched from their computers as we live streamed her funeral.
It didn’t feel like the celebration of life that she deserved. But I tried to find the blessing in the fact that we were able to gather in any capacity. A month earlier, even our small ceremony wouldn’t have been possible.
Nannie was generous. And kind. Her mail was always full of thank-you cards and gifts from organizations to which she had donated. Up to the last couple of years of her life, she was a volunteer at her local senior center and worked in the food pantry at her church. Her family was everything to her. She would say that we—my sisters, cousins, father, and uncles—were proof that she was rich.
I have come to think that my grief is like the tide.
My Nannie taught me what love looks like. She modeled it. Embodied it. And not just the sentimental stuff. The real stuff. The kind that takes work. She was there in good times and in challenging ones. To offer advice. To just listen. To help you find your way to grace. In every conversation I ever had with her, I had no doubt how deeply she cared about me. When I put my children to bed at night, I sing them a song she sang to me countless times. “I love you, a bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck…”
I have come to think that my grief is like the tide. Some days it’s so strong that I get pulled in and I am sure I will drown. Other days, when it just laps at my feet, I can almost forget that it’s there. But it’s always with me. As I explain to my children why school still isn’t open, it is there. When I pick up my phone and see the headlines about Black people dying in the street, it is with me. As I grapple with the death of my grandmother along with the realities of living through a global pandemic, my grief spreads until it feels like there’s no aspect of my life it doesn’t touch.
So much of the nation is grieving. In addition to the loss of life, a way of living we once took for granted is now gone. Plans months or years in the making have been canceled. Trips beyond state borders require special consideration and preparation. These smaller, everyday losses add up. They build on one another, until what may have seemed minor begins to feel like death by a thousand cuts.
To be Black in this country is to have those griefs further compounded. We have been inundated with modern-day lynchings at the hands of the police with little hope of accountability.
Black people have been dealing with violence perpetrated against our community for centuries, but the increased visibility that comes with social media can be overwhelming. It is nearly impossible to pick up your phone, or even walk down the street, without learning of some new horror.
My sister-in-law Makeda Redmond, says that amid this cascade of violence, she finds herself uncomfortable around white people for the first time in her life.
“Every day it’s somebody else [being killed], and you can’t help but feel like, Wow, they really hate us,” she told me one day on the phone.
“I don’t like being in that sad, deep place… I allow myself to be there, but I can’t stay there.”
Makeda is managing this daily reality along with her own personal losses. Her husband died suddenly in April 2019. All at once, she was a widow and a single mother. Now she is also grieving the loss of her grandmother, who died in mid-September, while also processing the ever-present threat to Black life. The magnitude of all of that can be difficult to bear, but she has learned to ride the wave of her grief.
“I don’t like being in that sad, deep place,” she said during our conversation. “I allow myself to be there, but I can’t stay there.”
It is challenging not to remain in that place. Makeda’s grandmother, who was my grandmother-in-law and my grandmother-in-love, passed away as I was writing this essay. I knew Dearmom for the better part of two decades. And despite the logic that tells me no one lives forever, I still find myself shocked to live in a world without her.
As I do my best to support my husband and family through this time, I find myself weary from the weight of it all.
Nannie would tell me to count my blessings.
Dearmom would say that if God brings you to it, he will see you through it.
They would both tell me I am stronger than I know.
Their faith in me continues to help me put one foot in front of the other, even as the year piles on more and more reasons to grieve. Even as I fear I may have more than my heart can hold.
In Loving Memory of Joan Robinson and Betty Ann Wilson.