My Grief Journey Began...When I was 6 years old

The death of Poppy is my first memory of someone close to me. I was 6 years old.  My grandfather told me that I was his favorite of all his grandchildren but I don’t remember that being true. 

What I do remember is that we used to visit him every Saturday. I loved going to his house. My grandmother and Poppy lived in a row home in the city and had the corner house.  This was especially good because my grandfather was a barber. 

I remember the barbershop pole being on the corner of their “front yard”.  The barbershop was on the ground level of their property but it was considered the basement of their house. One of my favorite things to do there was to play in the barber chair because it would spin around and go up and down. 

I also loved visiting them because there was an Italian bakery right around the corner from their home. Every Saturday we would go to the bakery and you could smell the bread baking before you even turned the corner. Have you ever smelled freshly baked bread? I’m convinced this is absolutely one of the BEST aromas in the world! I would always leave with a fresh roll to eat on the walk back to their house.

When my grandfather got sick he came to stay with us because my grandmother worked and my mom could take care of him. I remember sitting on his lap at the table and listen to him talk to me about everything. We had a special relationship and I just knew that he loved me. 

During Easter week, Poppy died.  Back in the day, Catholic’s did not bury people during that time so his casket remained in the living room of their home for several days. 

During that week, the entire family was at the home. All of the grandchildren were told to stay downstairs in the barbershop, which was fun for us. But every once in a while, we would come upstairs because we wanted to see what was happening there. We knew something wasn’t right so each of us would take turns to go upstairs but then we would be sent right back down those stairs. I was one of the youngest of the grandchildren so I am sure one of my cousins was telling us what to do.

When it was my turn go upstairs, I found the adults laughing and eating. They were loud. It seemed normal on one hand but yet on the other I knew it wasn’t. My Poppy wasn’t there and something was different.

The women were putting out food, cleaning up the kitchen, keeping busy. The men were sitting around the table, talking. 

When it was time for the viewing, the grandchildren stayed toward the back of the funeral home. I noticed a group of women walking in and dressed in black with black veils covering their faces. That part was scary to me, particularly because they were wailing as they walked in. Then they sat in the back section of the funeral home, which was separated by a curtain, making it seem even stranger. 

At one point, the grandchildren were called to the front and we lined up in front of the casket and were instructed to kiss our grandfather’s hand. I didn’t want to but I saw all my cousins doing it so I was obedient as well. This looked like my Poppy but it didn’t feel like my Poppy. His hands were hard and had the rosary wrapped around it. He felt like a mannequin that I would see in the department stores.

I don’t remember much after that except two things: I knew that my Mom was sad yet she was trying not to cry and I remember seeing my Dad wipe his eyes with his handkerchief. ( crying or being seen crying not allowed?)

We all experience losses in our lives. Some are so clear they feel like they occurred yesterday while we struggle to remember other losses, or at least the details.  For me, this was my earliest memory of loss. Little did I know that it was the beginning of my education on how to handle loss because as children we learn from the adults around us. 

Most of the time, we are not aware that we are modeling “how to deal with grief” to our children because we are absorbed in our own grief. We are not able to even think about what it looks like to those around us. We are doing the best we can since most of us have never been taught what to do when we lose someone we love.

Even at six years old, the seeds were being planted for the myths of grief that I would learn to believe and live out with my future losses.

Myths Of Grief

  • Don’t Feel Bad:
    I saw the adults talking and laughing but they either didn’t cry or they tried to hide the tears.  I just didn’t see the sadness or hear anyone talking about being sad. 

  • Busy Yourself:
    I saw my mom cleaning, serving and working around the house. Now, of course in the midst of a loss, there are things to do and get done. But anything good taken to an extreme can lead to unhealthy habits. And all busy work continued and I learned and lived that lie too well for too long. 

How are you doing with either holding your grief in or at bay and busying yourself?

Recognizing these lies will help lead you to healing your grief.

Michele Woodall