My grandmother, who we lovingly referred to as Grandma or Grandma B. during most of my childhood–G.G. once my oldest daughter was born–was the most amazing person I’ve ever known. She survived abuse, single motherhood, an F4 tornado, the police academy, and so much more. Despite every hardship, her heart was full. She loved each of us more than anyone else we knew. She brought calm and peacefulness to every interaction, and she welcomed everyone, no matter what, into our family with open arms. She was quiet but strong, meek but mighty. I remember thinking she would live forever. I remember thinking God wouldn’t take her from us during such a delicate time in our lives (A world pandemic and the throes of severe postpartum depression to name a few challenges at the time). I remember feeling selfish for wanting her to live on despite knowing she was suffering, but she passed anyway.
It was sooner than we expected and somehow still took longer than we prayed for. It was the most gut wrenching, heart breaking month of my seemingly short life. It’s been a year since we lost her–a year where we’ve found now, more than ever, how to feel gratitude in a time of immense grief. In losing her, we reconnected with family we hadn’t seen in years. We found new eyes for our faith, softened our hearts to walls we’d put up, and finally pushed ourselves into some intense healing that was long overdue.
Practicing gratitude in the midst of chaos was absolutely not easy, and I faltered quite a bit. She passed a week before Thanksgiving. Her service was beautiful, and the eulogy was perfect. I was left with that feeling that I couldn’t possibly cry a second more and that I just wanted to cry forever. I learned as time passed in my grief, little by little, I let go of the loss but never the love.
We began looking for signs of life–signs that Grandma was okay. She used to tell us as kids that every time you see a cardinal, it means someone in Heaven is thinking about you. Up until she passed away, I had no idea this was widely believed outside of our family. That’s just how special Grandma made every memory for us.
In the days after she passed, it remained pretty quiet in our backyard–eerily quiet with no bird activity which is unusual for us. Suddenly one day, the birds were flying back and forth everywhere, chirping and pecking at the ground. We watched them, thinking just how much Grandma loved birds. I was feeling kind of down and decided to take a walk with my daughters, and, just as I closed the patio door, the most gorgeous female cardinal landed on our fence, looked right at me and squawked twice loudly. I swear she knew who I was. The kids and I cheered. She made it to heaven and we knew she was okay.
We continued life as normal. We talked about G.G. as often as we could. We let the feelings pass through us and held each other when it was needed. But as time went on, we found happiness again. We looked for cardinals often, spotting them almost daily and feeling a sense of love and peace with each occurrence. We set up bird feeders and even took walks by the creek to increase our chances of these special encounters.
The closer we got to Christmas, the sadder I was that she wasn’t with us. I saw pictures of her and just wanted to hold her hand again. I watched my children freeze in front of her frame in the living room. They’d quietly shed a tear, wipe it, and quickly walk away. This was new to me as a mother: showing them my vulnerability while also supporting them with my strength.
Early this year, months after my sweet Grandma B. passed, it had been awhile since I’d seen a cardinal. I had a moment of quiet, staring out the kitchen window. I thought I saw a glimpse of red in the trees. I stared and stared–and nothing. I started asking God about Heaven: Was she there? Was she watching us? Was Heaven even real? And just like that, a cardinal flew out from behind the trees. It was a moment I always want to remember in which my faith was renewed and my sadness was turned to hope and love.
Grandma passed from advanced dementia. It was difficult to watch her suffer. It was a long few years, and her memories faded while her awareness and wit went away. Her skin and hair and energy all changed. The grandmother who had a hand in raising me, whom we’d lived with for years in my childhood, whom we saw every weekend well into adulthood, was suddenly very different. But in her passing, we learned to love harder, hold tighter, and believe more adamantly. We learned to stop waiting for the stars to align to go after what we wanted, and we learned that we never wanted to regret not saying, “I love you” enough.
When it felt like I was drowning in loss, I grounded myself by seeing the miracles of life all around me. I coped the only way I knew how–by connecting to the Earth and keeping to myself. What I wouldn’t give to hear her yell out one more “Hello?” from her favorite living room chair as we came to visit her, always going into the house from the utility room in the back of the house. Or to see her smile again. Or to hold her delicate hands.
The kids asked if we could save her; they wanted her to be with us longer and to pray for a miracle. I never found the words to explain to my innocent children that death was the best route for her because she wasn’t living anymore. In the silence of their unanswered questions, we found a way to be grateful for every moment we did get with her, for every sacrifice she made to help us be who we are today. And we loved one another fiercely in her memory.
A lot of my grieving came out as memories. Memories of ALL the things I had long discarded in order to make room for new things. Little triggers everywhere make them flood back. It’s hardest for me to imagine forgetting her. So, I do things with those memories like passing them on to my kids.
I think what’s most fascinating about how much I loved being at my grandma’s house growing up is how utterly boring it was. There were limited toys, none new at all, just random things she had left over from her own kids. Games like Scrabble, Upwords, Jacks and Pick Up Sticks became challenges for hours. Simple Hotwheels cars made tracks with their wheels on her thick blue carpet in every inch of the living room and flew as fast as we could make them go on her linoleum tiles.
One day these memories will fade again, so I write them down as I can– because writing lasts generations.
Heather Campbell is a married, mother of 5 girls. She loves to read, be in nature and share her stories. She spends most of her days homeschooling, being sleep-deprived, and going on daily walks.