Grieving Abroad

My Aunt Dorothy, my grandma’s younger sister, had been gone for 20 years. She left town after her mother’s funeral because of an argument in the family. No one saw or heard from her again until six months ago when she called my grandma, asked if she could come and stay with her, and showed up at her door a few days later.

Aunt Dorothy had a hard life. She grew up in East St. Louis with her mother and sister. Under her mother’s strict rules, Dorothy rebelled and left home as soon as possible. For the rest of her life, she was in and out of abusive relationships. She had two children with a man, eventually abandoned her son, taking only her daughter when leaving the relationship (the reason for this will forever be a mystery), and then entered another string of abusive relationships. When she turned up at my grandma’s door six months ago, the effects of her relationships could be seen in a leg that was twisted in at the knee—most likely a broken leg that had never healed, although Dorothy never admitted it.

After moving in with my grandma, Dorothy was quiet. She would barely speak, much less speak about what her life had been like during the past twenty years. All we know is that she had been living in Tennessee. She was younger than my grandma, but she looked (and acted) ten years older. My family noticed that her mind wasn’t completely intact, and it deteriorated even more in the following months. And her body followed. About a month ago, she became very ill, and after a couple of weeks, my grandma forced her to go to the doctor. She was immediately admitted to the hospital with a kidney infection, and it was soon discovered that she was experiencing congestive heart failure. She remained stable for a few days before sinking further into her illness. Within two weeks her kidneys were on the verge of a complete shut down, and her body was swollen with the water that her heart was failing to pump through her body, eventually building up so much that it began leaking through her pores. The medications didn’t work. There was nothing more the doctors could do. They gave her pain medications to keep her comfortable, my family visited her every day to make sure she wasn’t alone, and my grandma allowed herself to forgive Dorothy for all their past disagreements. Last Tuesday, at 11:30 pm, Dorothy passed away.

I never met Dorothy in person. She arrived at my grandma’s house about two months after I left for Thailand. I only ever saw her through Skype. At Christmas, I talked with her, and, despite her years of hardship, she seemed happy. Not knowing how to use the phone, she put her face too close to the camera, tilting her head to the left and right as she talked. She smiled, thanked me for the card I had sent her, and told me about the gifts she had received that day when I asked her. Her past hadn’t completely destroyed her spirit, and she struck me as quite spunky. During her 20 year absence, my family had learned to resent Dorothy for abandoning her son. Hearing her story, I had never liked the idea of her, and I didn’t understand why my grandma hoped to see her again in the future. But after talking to her, I couldn’t help but feel for Dorothy. I sympathized with her, I liked her, and I was looking forward to meeting her. I wanted the chance to offer her some of the kindness she had missed out on in her life. I wanted to get to know this woman who had been such a mystery in my family for so long. Even though we had never met in person, I still felt a connection to this long lost family member, this slightly spirited woman with a severe limp.

I was able to Skype with Dorothy the week before she died. I barely remember my great grandma Williams (Dorothy’s mother), who had died when I was only four or five, but looking at Dorothy in her hospital bed, I remembered my grandma Williams with her curly, white hair and timeworn body. Dorothy’s face had grown older in the months since Christmas. Her eyes were sunken in and her face was swollen. I had sent her a small candle from a market in Thailand, and her face lit up when I asked her if she liked it. I couldn’t be there, but for a short moment, I had made her happy. Still unaccustomed to conversation, she didn’t talk much, but I asked her if the doctors were taking care of her, told her I hoped she felt better soon, and said we would talk again. As I said it, I felt silly. I knew she likely only be alive for a few more days. But it was a knee jerk reaction caused by my hope that she would somehow still pull out of her illness and remain in the world until I returned to the US. But I don’t think Dorothy wanted to stay. I think she had found some happiness with my grandma in the previous six months and now she was finally ready to find some peace. I cried when I got off the phone with her. I cried because I knew she would die. I cried because I couldn’t visit the hospital with my family. And I cried because maybe no one had ever cried for Dorothy before.

I didn’t cry when my mom sent me the e-mail I knew I would receive telling me that Dorothy had passed away. I think for many, including me, grief hits first as a soft shock, preventing any kind of intense reaction. It lingers, finally settling in some days or weeks later. Some of it is bubbling up now, forcing out some more tears for Dorothy. I can’t grieve with my family. I can’t hug my grandma to comfort her. I didn’t get to see Dorothy finally being put to rest. My friends here are sympathetic, but I’m craving the empathy of my family back in Illinois. I wish I could’ve cried with them at the funeral instead of crying alone here. Grieving alone is a different experience. Without witnessing the people around you working through their own grief, you’re forced to set your own standards, and your grief feels intangible without another’s to link with. You don’t want it to come up, you don’t want to have to experience it alone, but you know you should. If it isn’t given time and attention, it will grow and twist into something much worse than grief.

Dorothy was buried last weekend. As if fate herself had organized it, an open plot was available only a few feet from my great grandma. They’re now resting next to each other, and I hope Dorothy has finally found the peace she never found in life.

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