Lessons from Grampa

grampaBack in September, my 77 year-old grandfather died in his sleep after a protracted illness and I did not mourn. Of course I was sad and there was an occasional tear here and there but for the most part, I did not possess the emotional bandwidth necessary to process my feelings in the traditional way. This is in part because I was so busy with the logistics surrounding the funeral – I was responsible for making the arrangements, wrangling family, and covering costs – that I didn’t have time to stop and, as the young folk say, “feel some type of way.”

My grandfather, whose name was Earl by the way, wasn’t the type to emote and linger when there was business to be handled anyhow so in a way, I felt like I was doing things the way he would’ve wanted. Earl Hansen was as no-frills of a man as you could get. Even when he was quite well, his favorite activity was sitting on the porch; a good meal was an egg salad sandwich and a big glass of cold water. That’s a man who wouldn’t want me dropping the ball at a funeral because of grief.

Nevertheless, people must mourn or at the very least they must reflect in order to properly memorialize the lost person in their hearts and minds. I had intended to say a few words at my grandfather’s funeral but in the moment I changed my mind (I had my eye on the clock and was also being mindful of how much people could bear). I’d now like to share some of those thoughts here for my own selfish reasons of course but perhaps I’ll spark something in someone else out there.

My Foundation

My grandfather, who I affectionately called “Grampa”, was the primary adult figure responsible for my upbringing from age 13 on after my grandmother died in 1994. This was such an important time in my life – being a teenage girl who was just starting to solidify my beliefs, my outlook on life, and how I would present myself to the world – and Grampa was a major influence on my identity. My Twitter bio uses the words “progressive” and “feminist” to describe who I am, two words that are directly linked to my Grampa’s lessons. Through our casual conversations held on the living room sofa, I learned that my grandfather believed in gay rights, racial equality, economic justice, and women’s humanity. He never put it in any of those terms, but as I grew to learn the vocabulary of the different movements and causes I’d come to care about, I realized that my grandfather had provided the foundation long ago. I am so grateful.

“A Good Man”

One of Grampa’s friends and former co-workers came up to me before the funeral. She and I had never met in person, but I remember her calling the house from time to time. She told me how much my grandfather talked about me and how proud he was, things I was fortunate to know and truly feel although he rarely gave voice to them. Before she left she paused and looked back at the casket and said, “Earl was just a good man. I’ve never met anyone like him.” I thought about that for a while and realized that I have yet to meet anyone like him too. Perhaps this is said about a lot of folks’ dead relatives but my Grampa truly was a good man and I’m not one to canonize the dead for no reason. He wasn’t a perfect man and he had his share of regrets but the more I live, the more I realize how good he was through sacrifice and love for his family in spite of tremendous obstacles. I already know that I am not as “good” as he was but I suppose I’ve still got some time to catch up. I’m also grateful for the fact that I can, without reservation, say that my grandfather was a good man and because of that I can discern the real from the imposters.

A Life Worth Living

My grandfather was sick for a while before he died but things were headed downhill long before. At the time of his death, my grandfather had been living in a nursing home. For reasons that are not germane to this post, he was unable to live with family so he stayed at a local care facility within walking distance from at least two of his children. The moment he went there, as far as I’m concerned, is when he started to die.

Grampa was no-frills but he was extremely intelligent, independent, strong-willed, capable, and proud. Being at that place, along with his increasing physical limitations, chipped away at his ability to express all of those wonderful qualities. Although his body started to betray him (he became immobile and near the end, couldn’t speak well) I could still see the man I knew him to be inside struggling to maintain his dignity and it was difficult to watch. For a time I lived too far away to visit regularly but even when I was only a 2-hour train ride away I rarely saw him. Busy was always a good excuse as was the emotional and financial drain that often accompanied visits with the rest of my family. However, if I’m being honest I found it incredibly difficult to sit with him as he was becoming a shade of his former self (at least on the outside).

When he was getting really sick, my grandfather told the doctors and family that he did not want them to take any extraordinary measures. He no longer wanted to be poked and prodded. Ultimately, I think he was tired of life as he was living it at the time and fed up with his body turning against him day after day. He was visibly in pain and being the man I knew him to be, he likely just decided that this was no longer something he’d tolerate and he’d just be done with it. This will sound strange to some but in that respect, I am relieved that my grandfather is gone. I am happy that he is no longer in pain. I am grateful that some of the things that caused him much emotional pain, stress, and concern were resolved in his lifetime. I am glad that I made more frequent visits with him toward the end after a very long stretch of being away from home. I am fortunate to have learned one final lesson from him about a life worth living that I am trying to practice now and for decades to come.


As I come to the end of this post I’m left wondering, “what is there to mourn?” I have everything he ever taught me right here *points to head and heart*. Instead of feeling bereft I’m left celebrating who he was as a man, a father, a husband, a grandfather, and a friend. While I wish he were here so that I could continue to bask in his love and adoration (said without the slightest shred of sarcasm or hubris), talk with him, and know that he is well, I am not discomforted by the fact that he is in peace after so long without any. It seems as though while I may not mourn like the others, I have my closure after all.

  • Alain

    Thanks for sharing.