Grieving My Abuela Has Been Messy and Healing All at Once

For the rest of my life, February 19th will always be a hard day for me

National Grief Awareness Day

Photo courtesy of Sofía Aguilar

For the rest of my life, February 19th will always be a hard day for me. It was the day my abuela passed away in 2021, a week after her 99th birthday, and everything that led up to the moment she was gone will always live clearly in my memory: her headache that turned out to be a stroke, the hours waiting in the hospital, getting the call from her nurse later that night. Two years on, I’m still on a journey of grieving, healing, learning, and growing, which is what makes days like National Grief Awareness Day so important. Celebrated annually on August 30th, National Grief Awareness Day honors people who are or have experienced grief, teaches others about grief, offers resources, and opens up dialogue and space for people to share their stories and express their past experiences with loss. There’s this idea that grief is a linear timeline with a tangible end date when in reality, it’s something that’s always flowing, resurfacing, and shifting into something new. I know because that’s how it has been for my grief journey for the past two years.

Growing up, my abuela was practically my second mother. My mom was working all the time, as was my dad, so it was largely up to my abuela to watch over me after school, sometimes even on weekends. I remember her most for her humor, laugh, cooking, and sense of play and fun, which was remarkable not only because of her age but because she’d told my mom before I was born that she was tired of taking care of the babies of the family. She’d done it so often for both of my aunts’ children that by the time it got to me, she said she was done, over it, and exhausted. But then she saw my mom hold me in her arms and that was it: she became more attached to me than my own parents could’ve thought possible.

Which is what made losing her so hard. I was only 21 and in many ways, I still felt like a kid. Not to mention that I’d been taking care of her for months with my tía, feeding her at meals and helping her with pills and vitamins. It was obviously hard work but I became used to the idea of being a caretaker, that I could look after someone else like a parent. After she passed away, I was left with this huge, messy, gaping hole of grief and confusion. I didn’t just lose a grandmother that day, but a parent, a patient, and not even from COVID but from a stroke that seemed wrong and out of left field even for someone her age.

The worst part is that I wasn’t even given the space or grace to grieve. I was forbidden from taking a break from the college semester, especially since it was my last one before graduation, and instead was forced to return to class, all my activities, and regular life two days after she passed. That week, I had an anxiety attack in response to hearing firetruck sirens because they were the first responders at the scene when she was experiencing her stroke, but had to go right back to doing homework. Out of necessity, I trained myself to always have a smile on my face, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when it felt wrong. And even after graduation, it continued being non-stop. I was already working, I had to take care of my family, who were also still grieving, and I never gave myself a break or brought up the possibility of going to therapy (which I now know I should’ve done) to finally process what had happened to me and everything I had lost.

That’s the funny thing about Mexican culture: we are incredibly evolved and deep in our ideas about death, spirituality, and souls, but will scoff at the idea of showing our grief or asking for time to process our pain or involving strangers in our business by seeking professional help. Instead, we’ll often shove it under a rug and hope it goes away, like a monster in the closet. We ignore it out of fear and impatience, then wonder why we always feel like something’s wrong.

So over the past two years, my healing has come, but only on my own terms and with a lot, a lot, of time. Because unfortunately for me, I’ve internalized a lot of that stigma from my culture. At one point, I talked to a therapist for an introductory call, which was incredible but ended up going nowhere. Instead, I threw myself into my work hoping that the pain would just go away on its own or hide at the back of my mind. To some extent, it worked. But then whenever I would have a moment of freedom, a second with my own thoughts, that feeling of loss and how much I missed my abuela would just come flooding right back.

Now at 24, I’ve realized that the thing that has healed me the most is stories. I love sharing and laughing at fond memories of her at the table with my family. I love writing about her, preserving her memory, and sharing my experiences in the hope that other people know that they’re not alone in not being perfect about facing their feelings head-on. I love talking about her death freely and openly instead of something to hide or be afraid and ashamed of, and embracing my grief as proof that I still love her and miss her. She is still my greatest creative inspiration and I hope I continue to make her proud.

Granted, there are still moments when I talk about her and get choked up. Just a few months ago, I heard some old voicemails she’d left on my mom’s phone and I cried for what felt like an hour. Or I’ll see an object that reminds me of her or her photo on the wall, and get an ache in my chest. In those moments, it feels like I’m just going back to the place where I started two years ago, that I’ve regressed and undone all my process. But I’ve come to accept that that will be true no matter how much time passes. We’ll be going on the third anniversary of her passing next February and I know it’ll be just as hard as the first, that I’ll never really “get over” the loss of someone so important to me, and that I’ll always wish she was here to see all the good things that have come into my and my family’s lives. For now, I’m grateful for the role she played in my life and how long she was alive to see it, and am open to my grief, whenever and however it comes.

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