Grief is weird.
A year ago I lost my grandpa, Thatha. He was a brilliant man: a rocket scientist and engineer who immigrated from Tamil Nadu and brought my mom and the rest of the family to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue a better life. He went to graduate school at Stanford, worked several jobs to support the family, and ended up selling the house to my parents (I got to grow up in the same house my mom did). More importantly, he was the best grandpa anyone could ask for. Both of my parents worked growing up, so he would chauffeur me from school, bringing me lunch, helping me with my Tamil homework, and teaching me important life skills such as how to make paper boats. He was an extremely active person, playing tennis multiple times a week. He biked with me all around the neighborhood, sprinted to get my kites up, and played with me and my dog Jack at the park. My favorite story of Thatha that really encompasses his personality is that he would accompany me to Great America, the Six Flags amusement park near my grandparents’ new house in Santa Clara, and was the one who took me on my first ever roller coaster. This man, born before Mt. Rushmore was built, held my hand and did the double-loop “Demon” with me multiple times in a row.
Towards the end of my seventh grade year, we started noticing problems with Thatha’s memory. At first, it was small– like forgetting to close the garage door, or not remembering what he had for lunch that day– and so we chalked it up to old age. But then it started getting worse. He bumped a motorcycle while picking me up at school. He started forgetting why he was driving as he did. Soon, it morphed into confusion and disorientation. By this time, I had already graduated eighth grade and was set to go to boarding school for the next four years. Every time I came home and visited, he was worse. He started to not only forget events and people, but also the ability to move. He stopped playing tennis and switched to ping pong. What was going on?
After two years of misdiagnoses, Thatha was finally diagnosed with Corticobasal degeneration syndrome, a rare condition in which areas of your brain shrink and your nerve cells degenerate and die over time. The disease affects the area of the brain that processes information and brain structures that control movement. Essentially, we found out that not only would he continue to not be able to remember, but also eventually not be able to move at all.
How do you grieve someone who is already alive?
During the pandemic, all senior facilities shut down, and Thatha was moved into full-time care at the house. My grandma did all of the work taking care of him, eventually hiring full-time help as it became worse. We visited every week that summer; it was heartbreaking to see him forget to speak, be unable to tell us what was wrong. There were so many things I wanted to ask him, to learn more from him, to understand him, but there was no way to find out anymore. What do you need from him? My therapist had asked me. Would you be okay if every time you saw him, it was your last? These were hard questions. I wasn’t even sure anymore; the grandpa I knew hadn’t been around for a while now. I think I found the answer to my question when I told him I had closed the bank account he had opened for me and transferred the money into my new account. “Skylar,” he had said, taking me by complete surprise, “You deserve it.”
I went off to college and found myself in the same situation as before, coming back to someone who was slowly dying. He had stopped being able to speak and was slowly losing the ability to eat or drink. Whispers of it being the end, and in a way, I almost wanted it to. I was sick of him suffering. What if he was trapped inside his body and had no way to communicate? In early October, my grandma moved him to my uncle’s house in Seattle. A week later, he stopped eating. Immediately, my mom and I flew out to see him. The trip itself was disastrous: my mom got uveitis from the plane, my cousin was suffering from seizures, the whole family was in shambles due to the chaos of the trip. In the midst of it all, I was overwhelmed. I remember looking at Thatha, who now could not move any muscles at all, and telling him it was okay if he had to go. I didn’t want him to suffer anymore. And most of all, I loved him so much.
It was a week later when I got the call. Thatha had passed. He was surrounded by family in Seattle, peacefully asleep when it happened. At first, I felt nothing. I hung up and walked back into my Law 300 class. I took notes. I packed up my bag and began to walk home to my apartment. And that’s when it hit me: I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t care that I was in the middle of the campus, people walking by in the rush between classes. Why hadn’t the world stopped? Why was everyone still moving? My whole world had completely crashed; it wasn’t fair. Yes, I had wanted him to stop suffering, but what now? Suddenly he was gone? One moment it was a hypothetical, the next it was a reality. I would never see him again.
My grief began to spiral. I couldn’t leave my bed. I attempted to write, but it was hard to get out. Stuck in grief, I felt as though I had no words left in me. I had no energy to write the things bubbling just under my surface, no way of expressing my feelings except through reclusiveness and anger. I switched back and forth, one minute feeling “fine,” and the next, stomping through my apartment, slamming doors, and screaming into my pillow. Crying became a constant: drowned out in the shower, choking back in the middle of the night, even in the middle of campus as awkward passerbys attempted to avoid eye contact. Nothing felt real. How could the world keep going? Thatha just fucking passed away. And everyone was expecting me to bounce back as if nothing had happened.
But see, the thing is, even when I did “bounce back” to my usual routines/habits/dilemmas, it all felt like a temporary distraction to the gaping hole of numbness I felt. The sadness kept pulling me in as if there was no escape. This constant push of trying not to let myself act depressed– denial is the first step, obviously– only weakened me further. I was already burnt out from my ever-growing commitments; this was the tip that pushed me over. The little energy I had left was gone; there was no way I could commit to my previous schedule of juggling in-person classes, the twenty minute walk to school, my constant social life (like going out four nights a week), my increased role in club commitments, etc. Even when I confided in my friends, I did not always get the response I was hoping for. I asked for extra reassurance and love– and while some did respond with such, a vast majority did not. Some of the people I would’ve dropped everything in a heartbeat for did not reciprocate the same support. It was gutting to realize that my circle of friends didn’t really exist; it was merely a flimsy cluster of people I shared similar routines with and had mistook for deep, genuine connections.
I recognized these feelings of emptiness and disappointment; I had felt them at the end of my sophomore year of high school. I knew I couldn’t get out of this alone. So I asked for help. My therapist recommended trying antidepressants, and although I was hesitant, I decided it was time I tried it. It wasn’t easy, but slowly, I began to regain stability. The sadness didn’t go away, but the constant numbness did. I realized I was starting to feel better in all aspects of my life: my anxiety went down, and my confidence went up. By the time 2022 rolled around, I had never felt better. Thatha had done it once again, always showing me help in unexpected ways.
Of course, the grief never goes away. It comes and goes when I least expect it. I see him everywhere: in the cardinals outside of our Dallas home, in the butterflies that cross my path, in my own interest in rockets and outer space. I think of him whenever I see someone wearing a Stanford sweatshirt– he was a proud alumni– or when someone asks me if I know any of my mother’s native tongue (up until the end, I always practiced counting to ten with him). The hardest part is the dreams: dreams where he suddenly regains the ability to remember, talk, and walk– there was a miracle! The nightmare is over! And then I have to wake up and face the reality of it all once again. Two nights ago, I had one of those dreams. It started with me bringing him to our house in the Bay, to the spot where we had made paper boats and watched them float down the gutter when a fire hydrant up the street had broken. I was telling this to him when he turned to me and began talking. Shocked, I had told him that I loved him. I thanked him for giving up alcohol to help raise me. I thanked him for being the best grandpa I could have ever wanted. And he smiled at me, and said, “I already know.”
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