I was on the couch this past Friday. I was binge watching "Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce" and sending emails to my students. It was not even the afternoon yet, I dare say I hadn't finished my coffee. I had just agreed to go up to campus to head to the interaction lab for the research project I am working on when I received a text message.
The message said that my uncle had passed away earlier that morning. I cannot say my world came crashing down because I was not super close to this uncle; however, time did freeze for a moment. It froze because my other aunt just told me the following Sunday that he had been diagnosed with cancer, so I was just confused how he could JUST be diagnosed and pass away so quickly. But then I remembered cancer works in mysterious ways and it takes lives and has no discrimination. It is literally no respectors of persons.
I text the director of the project I am working on and asked could I just not come in and I told her that I just found out my uncle died, thankfully she was understanding. I was so happy I had chosen to work from home Friday because I needed to process. Not because I was extremely heartbroken, not to sound harsh, but I needed to process. Here is why:
My uncle's passing makes the third child my Nana has had to burry. My Nana is a little over 80 years old and she has buried three children. She has also buried two husbands due to cancer taking them. That is five deaths of close loved ones. That is not including her friends and possibly siblings and nephews and etc. Basically, I set on the couch feeling a deep sorrow for my Nana. No parent envisions outliving their children, much less three of them. Yet, here my Nana is doing it.
I thought of my aunties and uncles left behind in the aftermath of yet another one of their siblings' death and I felt this weight begin to just sit on my legs and I couldn't move. I re-read the text message and immediately called the aunt who sent it. There is no non-cliche to talk to someone who just lost a loved one. You cannot say something that has never been heard before. You cannot say something that probably doesn't sound like it came out of a Nicholas Sparks book. That doesn't stop you from trying though. My aunt tried to sound okay, but I am a master of reading through that but I left it alone. The only good thing is that they had visited my uncle in the hospital the day before and they were thankful for that moment.
A few hours later I called my Nana, I wanted to give her time to call everyone. When I heard her voice was when I shed my first tear after hearing the news. Again, it wasn't my own sadness that brought tears to my eyes but instead hers. It was the pain in her voice of trying to say she was fine but hearing the truth behind the cracks of every breath. I know that I shouldn't take on other folks' feelings; however, what else am I supposed to do.
I think that a few of us struggle with this "second-hand sorrow" of some sorts. It is not a grief we own, but it is a grief we borrowed or stole from someone else to help them make it through. For me, I know my Nana has carried enough because she has given so much of herself to everyone-- including strangers. That is honestly the story of many Black grandmas, always giving of themselves til there is nothing left. But for my uncle, I think there was a feeling she did not do enough.
My uncle had his demons and who doesn't. He dealt with them and then when the recession hit and other financial hardships took his business from him, it was all downhill from there. A mother always wants to protect their child from any pain; however, that wasn't a pain my Nana could save my uncle from. Some battles you have to fight yourself and your army is only there in case you fall. Its like when a boxer goes into the ring, it is just him but he has a team in the corner who is there to stitch an eye or a lip--but he is the one taking the blows.
People try to find different ways to cope when depression hits besides going to get help, but this is even more of the case for Black men (because of problematic masculinity beliefs). To a praying southern black grandma, there isn't anything Jesus cannot fix--even addiction--if you pray hard enough.
With me knowing this, I try to put myself in my Nana's shoes and to take on her sorrow for myself becaue hasn't she had enough grief? Hasn't she lost enough pieces of herself in her long life. But also, I know how grief works. It eats you up, and steals years of life and I want my Nana to have all her years left. Hell, I want to give her some of my years. I want her to be here as long as I am here.
She is my connection to my mom, her child, who also died. She is full of stories and strength and love. She has mastered the "grandma handshake" where she slips you some cash and you don't even notice it.
Folks talk about how strong Black women are, but I am here to tell you the strength of my Nana is not something you want. Three children and Two husbands lost to cancer, addiction, and racism. This is not a strength that comes from happy experiences.
It comes from sharing the load of grief in the family. I know that my Nana would not have been able to survive without folks feeling emapthy and carrying the load when she couldn't. The funny thing is, she will not tell you she cannot pick it up. She will want to take care of you instead, but we all know the truth. Each of us carry a piece for her. We all have a second-hand sorrow for the passing of my uncle and other family members.
I know I have talked about grief having no statute of limitations, but grief also has no familial boundaries. It is a funny thing. Even if you did not have a strong relationship with a family member that passed, grief still hits you in a weird way--even if it is just you taking on the load for someone else.