Complicated Grief


Words by Erica L. Bartlett

I’ve known for a long time that grief is very individual. But I didn’t feel the full truth of it until Memere, my maternal grandmother, died last April. That’s when I saw the difference in reactions between myself and many of my cousins.

My mom came from a Catholic French-Canadian family of nine, which means I have lots of cousins. I had assumed that their relationship with our grandparents was the same as mine, even though I never talked to them about it. Since most of them are ten or more years younger than me, we never spent much time together.

Then I saw what they posted on Facebook after Memere died, and I realized my assumptions were completely wrong.

Their reactions were what most people would expect. They mourned the loss of someone important in their lives. Someone whose love and support they never questioned. Someone they would miss.

But what I felt was much more complicated.

Grief for the fact that I was never close to Memere. Envy for my cousins, who had the kind of relationship I yearned for but would never have. And resentment that Memere lived to be 91, while Mom died over seventeen years earlier, at age 48.

All this meant I didn’t even know how to respond when someone asked me what my favorite memory was of Memere.

I wanted to share something wonderful, about how she made me feel comfortable and safe. That she gave me homemade cookies, thoughtful gifts, care, and encouragement.

But I couldn’t, because that wasn’t my experience. Here’s what I do remember.

Feeling let down at Christmas. In my younger years, I only had three cousins, all girls around my age. And all four of us usually got the same Christmas presents. Two years in a row, we got jewelry boxes – before I even wore any jewelry. In later years, I got Avon gifts that didn’t match my style at all.

I remember how much my grandparents disapproved of Dad, who wasn’t Catholic. It always made me feel awkward on visits. I wondered how much that disapproval carried down to me and my brother.

My sense of unease during visits only increased after my family left the Catholic church when I was eight, but we had to keep it a secret from my grandparents because Mom was too nervous about how Memere would react. The truth didn’t come out until years later when I was in my teens – but by then I had a bigger problem.

I had started gaining weight at age eleven. After that, every time I saw Memere, I felt judged and found wanting. She commented on how much I ate, and when she looked at me, at my ever-increasing size, I flinched at the strength of her displeasure.

After Mom died, I lost weight, and things changed. Memere was so proud and happy to see my thinner self. Except I couldn’t ignore the fact that her focus was still on my weight. I desperately wanted it to be a non-issue, for her to accept and love me as I was, unconditionally. But we never got to that point.

It also didn’t help that my smaller size highlighted another issue. Being single.

In Mom’s family, everyone paired up. My aunts and uncles all married, as well as my older cousins and my brother. Not all of those relationships lasted, but still, Memere always wanted to know if I had a boyfriend.

In retrospect, I realize that I sometimes dated just to quiet an inner voice – a voice that sounded like her – whispering that if I was single, especially now that I wasn’t fat, something was clearly wrong with me.

I do think she was proud of my accomplishments, but I never felt that more than intellectually. It got lost in the shadow of the other emotions.

All of this came up for me around the time of Memere’s death. The strength of my reaction took me by surprise, so I tried to take a step back, to understand where she was coming from and make sense of why my cousins felt a kind of grief I couldn’t share.

One difference was religion. Most of my cousins stayed Catholic, and I suspect Memere truly worried about what it would mean if my family died as nonbelievers.

Plus, when I was born, Memere still had five kids at home. Being a grandmother was probably not on her radar, and living an hour away didn’t help. Things were very different by the time my younger cousins were born, and they mostly lived on the same road as Memere.

Rationalizing it helped a little. What helped much more was simply acknowledging my feelings. When I owned them, let myself grieve for the relationship I never had, I could finally let go and move on.

I’m more at peace with all this now, but I still wish it could have been different. That I could have turned to Memere for comfort when Mom died. That I had felt welcomed and cherished by her, regardless of my size, religious affiliation, or dating status. That my grief could have been straightforward, a deep emotion I could easily post on Facebook instead of a generic message asking for good thoughts.

Those wishes will never be granted. Life isn’t always – or even often – fair. And my grief and memories of Memere will always be complicated.

About the Author

Erica L. Bartlett began writing as a teenager and is often inspired by nature. She’s a published poet and has also published a memoir, "Winning the Losing Battle: A True Story of Weight Loss and Transformation". She’s also a health coach and helps people with mindful eating. She enjoys reading, cooking, walking, hiking, traveling, volunteering, and visiting with friends and family. She lives in Portland, Maine with her two cats.

Grief | Grandparents | Death | Mourning