Writing as Healing: Life’s Lesson in the Death of My Grandmother

Why, when I sit down without an intention do I often start to write about my grandmother? Why, when sitting before an indigenous shaman in Peru does she tell me that my grandmother’s spirit is sitting beside me, that she looks sad & that in order for me to move on in my life, I’ll need to heal the relationship, to release her? Why is the relationship unhealed and, if this is true, how can I heal it? I asked the shaman that night, Why is she sad? How can I heal it? And she told me to love my grandmother. To talk to her & listen. I’ve tried praying to and talking to her. Listening. Sending her love. I think she’s getting it. But what’s the next step?

My grandmother had finished a story shortly before she unexpectedly died one weekend with a carrot in her hand sitting in her favorite chair. Sudden death, they say. We didn’t do an autopsy. She’d already had cancer twice plus lived with diabetes. She’s dead, my family decided, we don’t need to know how or why. One of her best friends, Sylvia, whom I’d met a couple months prior, told my mom at the funeral that she thought my grandmother passed on because she had felt like her life was complete after I’d been living with her for 3 months. She’d really enjoyed that time with her granddaughter, she said. Sylvia thought she’d felt fulfilled and that’s why she passed on. But the story I found written by my grandmother wasn’t a story of fulfillment. Not to me. I read it shortly after her death, finding it in her documents on her computer. And the conversation we had the week before she died certainly didn’t speak of ultimate completeness, as Sylvia supposed. No, a week before she died, my grandmother and I had had a talk about things she still wanted to do before she died.

We sat in her front room library with the looming bookshelves & wood-panneled walls. The same living room I played in as a baby. The same living room I walked into each day as I returned from university to find her sometimes sitting on the couch watching soap operas, QVC or odd news channels. It was evening and we were having a deep talk, which shouldn’t be surprising given both my grandmother and I are deep-thinkers, but it was rare for us, nevertheless. She told me how she wanted to go sky-diving, maybe travel more, and smoke marijuana, which gave me quite a laugh. Being raised in a conservative, Christian environment and being a elite athlete up to that point, I hadn’t smoked marijuana either, though many of my friends did, so I promised to get us some so that we could smoke for the first time together. Grandmother & Granddaughter, meet Marijuana. Perfect scenario for my coming-of-age-rebellion, finally.

But she didn’t last long enough for me to secure some pot & bring it home to share in that same wood-paneled room. She died suddenly that weekend. And I was heartbroken. My life felt ripped from within. For the first time in my life, I knew loss. I remember going into the bathroom still smelling her, mesmerized by her night-shirt & towel still hanging on the shower rod. It would all soon be washed. The leftovers in the fridge all soon tossed. As I wrote that day,

pretty soon your towel will be removed from the shower curtain, the clothes you folded for me will be worn, your leftovers from Saturday (the pasta that made you so happy) will be in the trash. in fact, your grandma smell is already gone. your dentures are gone, your food will be eaten and junk mail will accumulate in your inbox. life is growing fast over you like a wilting flower in an overgrown wood. your memory lingers, but we all know it will get choked out in time. thank you for your life. you have left fingerprints of love on our hearts.

It was all too much and I had finals that week. My pseudo-boyfriend at the time, kind-hearted soul that he is, came down, basically took a week off from school (impossible feat in finals time, yet he did) and laid in bed with me. I had never known depression before. I had never known an off-beat or a low moment. But that was all to change after this.

I began to question life deeply. A growing existential dilemma had been rising within me since entering college and being inundated with lifestyles unfamiliar to me. I began to question why I did the things I did. Why go to church? Why listen to the social code and keep my hair a certain way? Why not date women, smoke marijuana, eat mushrooms, dress how I wanted? The list goes on and somehow my grandmother’s death would be the catalyst to push me into jumping off the precipice of the known, of my safe & standard life, into the gorge of chaos.

Looking back, I should have gotten out of the house. My mom offered to help me pay rent elsewhere, but I insisted on saving money so I stayed there and got a few roommates. Slowly we cleaned out the closets. Found hoards of QVC jewelry, purses, hand gloves, much of it never worn. I smoked marijuana & made weed tea and was stoned for an entire weekend in her home. Convening with my grandmother’s spirit- we were going to try weed for the first time together- I would say for years afterward. I was going through a hard time and mostly did so in the privacy of my own mind. It was rough- feeling all of the existential questions ramble & roar at me as the foundations of my life as I’d known it up to that point crumbled and fell down. Truly the questions I came here with as a young soul came to the fore, full-bore- Why are we here? Who am I? Who made God? What is going on here?

I wondered why my grandmother had left me. Why no one else seemed to be puzzled over these questions as I was- haunted by them, even. Why everyone was just going on with life- humpty dum, living so superficially & unquestioningly, I thought at the time. I read a lot of Kafka, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov… I studied philosophy and talked about it with nary a soul. I wrote a private journal and pined.

Well, I eventually pined. In the beginning, as was the custom in my family, I pushed the grief of her death aside. I went on with my life. I pushed myself to do the things I had signed up to do. A new semester started and I was taking part in an Adventure Leadership Training with 18 other students. Looking back, I should’ve gotten help. I should’ve talked with someone, expressed my pain & questions. But I didn’t. I charged ahead and eventually worked them out on my own and with friends over time as I gently opened up through the years.

This was one of the most challenging times in my life. I remember feeling so alone. I was grieving and I gave myself no space for it. I was grieving and I didn’t even know the word. I wrote,

This death and emotional fragility, all this baggage makes me want to cry out for truth or else not talk at all. It makes me want to be a saint or else drink too much and fuck. 
It’s hard to say what exactly I am feeling. 
I haven’t talked about it; I haven’t told myself.
I want time and silence to heal me, along with wandering and mountains.

It’s cathartic now as I write. I have talked about this with a lot of people, but I haven’t written about it full-swoop as I am doing now. I haven’t dug in and really faced it as I am doing now.

I still remember when I got the call from my mother. I was in the library, looking for a book for research, high up on the 9th floor when I got the call. My mom called, I answered, whispering hello into the line as softly as I could. When all I got back was silence and the struggling voice eking out from my mother on the other end, I knew something was wrong. What’s wrong, Mom, is everything ok? I stammered, increasingly getting worried. Mom’s dead, is all she said on the other line. I started shrieking in the library. My mom said, We’re all coming to the house now. We’ll be there in 45 minutes. Are you okay? I told her I’d be fine. We hung up and I felt like I was in a bleary dream.

It was winter, December in Indiana and the snows had just begun. I was about an hour’s walk from the house, so I started walking instead of taking the bus. I was shocked and confused and numbed. I don’t remember walking home. I remember sobbing, dazed, as I meandered the streets to the south side of town to my grandmother’s house. I remember getting there into that front wood-paneled room where my mom and dad, sister and aunt and uncle were sitting. I remember everyone staring at me silently, first waiting for some sign from me on how to act. They knew I would be taking it hard- but how hard? She was living with her at the time, they must’ve all been thinking. Everyone was sobbing or stone-faced and my mom enveloped me.

I don’t remember many details of that time. I just remember my disbelief. The sunken feeling that something was lost that I didn’t expect to be and I couldn’t get it back. I couldn’t have her back to tell her how much I loved her. To have the conversations I really wished I could have with her. To smoke MJ or go sky-diving, or watch each other grow more over the next few years. She was one of my greatest encouragers. She was maybe my main soul-mate in the family, understanding me deeply with even one look. What was I to do without her? What was I to do without her?

My grandmother was a daring woman. A woman of courage, keen insight, a soft, warming presence complemented with a jovial chuckle and wily sense of humor. She hugged me too tight and long as I child; I always thought I would suffocate. She had sharp, long claws that she would pinch my arm with and scratch me and laugh. She cared about justice and had an open mind. She faced a lot of pain early in her life and had health issues throughout which she also dealt with squarely. She was intelligent and hard-working, and, though I gather that she wasn’t the most nurturing or communicative of mothers at times, I know she did her best for her family.

While I lived with her, we went over some of the special moments from her life. She was an editor for a technology magazine, having gone back to school later in life to fulfill one of her personal dreams. She got to interview Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, One of the Kennedy’s and many more, though I can’t remember them now. She loved literature and corresponded with Thomas Wolfe, one of her favorite authors. After she died, we found a letter to her from him stating that he didn’t think his career would’ve been the same without their correspondence.

As I said, she was a sharp, smart lady and an astute encourager. She knew brilliance and would rave about intelligent things she had picked up. I feel sad that she lived most of her later life alone. My grandfather, her husband, who I never met, ran around town with young women and my grandma was one of the last to know. I think this wounded her greatly and she never really had any other romances or close, intimate relationships after they divorced and he died. It must’ve torn her up to be betrayed and lied to. I can only imagine. I feel for my grandmother in this regard, and when I recently read the short story she had written and saved on her hard drive some time before her unbidden death, I had a wider perspective on what she might’ve experienced as a cloistered, unfulfilled woman in the mid-century.

The story (attached below: Ruth & Harold) was all about the bland & repetitive existence of a housewife with a disconnected & drab, yet faithful husband. The story delves into the housewife’s un-lived fantasies, how she feels essentially unknown and ignored by her husband. In the end, she kills herself in the bathtub after paying all the bills 3 months out, cleaning the entire house and writing a telling note to her husband with directions he should follow in his life & her reasons for leaving. She was unfilled and unseen, plain and simple. When I read that, I felt like fighting for my grandmother. If she was here, I would’ve demanded that she stand up and seek out a better life for herself.

Over time, I’ve realized that in many ways my grandmother did seek out better ways of life for herself and that perhaps she just didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to address this one. It has certainly given me fuel to make sure that I don’t end up this way, feeling ultimately unheard, unsatisfied and unnoticed in my relationships. Per usual, the mistakes (for lack of a better word) of our ancestors can lead us forward into choosing better lives for ourselves.

When the Shaman-lady in Peru told me that my grandmother was very sad and that I needed to heal it, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew immediately that it was true. There is a deep sadness in the life that has things left undone in it. There is great sadness if a person even metaphorically (through a story) kills herself because she has never been seen, gotten to live out certain fantasies, hasn’t truly related to a person and been known for the beautiful, amazing, multi-dimensional soul that she is. My grandmother deserved this! Just as we all do. In some way, me living my life well, as best as I can, is an offering of hope, of healing that in some way my grandmother’s life is redeemed. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but it seems to have happened naturally in the process of responding to my grandmother’s life/death, using it as a catalyst for greater life & growth in my own life.

My grandmother did not die in vain. She may have left before we were all ready for her to go, but her life leaves a legacy for me in so many ways. She loves me greatly and this empowers me. I also know that I might not have stepped out on a limb in my life so early and so fiercely if I wasn’t propelled by her timely death and the talk we had a week before she died.  Writing this now, I feel how my grandmother’s life pressed upon my own. She touched my life, as the saying goes, whether or not she intended to in this way.

Her life, in its entirety, created a foundation early in mine that I would not live hidden, wounded, unsatisfied or waiting. Something within her death handed me the keys of release from the cage of the social code, of playing it safe. She unlocked the huge container of What if that I had collected already in my lifetime. Now it is time for me to move on. Ultimately, I must move on because, even though I am influenced greatly by my grandmother and her life, I must live my own life. Her life & death has run its course through me like a storm- at times silent, at times rambunctious, but certainly changing things: ripping out old growth, shedding light and watering new life. If we are really here as souls having a human experience, which I believe we are, what an important thing for my grandmother to have done for me- Effectively, she pushed me past the bullshit of What will others think into my very own soul path.

Her death ripped away the illusory facade of life and made me get to the core of my life early, before doing 30 years in the “work-force” and having a family. I had an expedited life-crisis due to her death. Had to go through hell at the time, yet looking through it all, I’m so thankful I’ve put this work at the forefront of my life. I am a cleaner, purer me than before her death. I am aligned with my life and I know the tools to implement, the steps to take if I get off-course in some way. My grandmother’s passing on gave me the right to pass on so many of the short-changing ruts of the human experience. She lit a fire under my butt that said, Don’t wait! Deal with your shit! Live! Become! Try! Her words echo in Mary Olivers poem, The Summer Day:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


It might’ve felt to me that my grandmother left us all too soon. That I’d like to talk with her now, tell her about all my adventures, tell her how I have lived and loved and tried desperately to learn from the lesson of her death and that I have succeeded. Some people teach us their greatest lessons in their leaving. This is the way my grandmother taught me. Her lesson for me reverberates in all eternity. And I am thankful for her soul and pray for its peace & release.

Love you Grandma….Gram….

Mardell Jefferson Raney, younger years

Mardell Jefferson Raney, younger years

Gram n Me readin'

Gram n Me readin’

Gram with my sister, Erin

Gram with my sister, Erin

Ruth and Harold, the story I found in my grandmother’s files. I realize it’s graphic, but I feel it’s a common sentiment from her generation of women and I’d like to share it. So that, in some way, her words and pain and feelings are known, released & composted so that only beauty remains. Because, ultimately, I believe that the telling of our stories can bring peace & healing.


6 thoughts on “Writing as Healing: Life’s Lesson in the Death of My Grandmother

  1. oooh, what a nourishing and healing story to read. Thank you for sharing! So many reflections for me in my own mother’s death.

    I especially like, ” Per usual, the mistakes (for lack of a better word) of our ancestors can lead us forward into choosing better lives for ourselves.” I believe strongly that we inherit the unfinished business and unhealed wounds of our ancestors, and that much of the work of our current generation is to heal the wounds of the past…

    • thanks chicken! glad you found it nourishing/healing. it was such for me to write it as well.. so healing.

      i, too, believe that we are left with generational karma to face. although, i also am finding/have found that at a certain point i can stop responding to generational karma and live my life. for me, it’s akin to always being an emergency worker in a hospital. at a certain point, i decide to be the gardner instead of tending to every emergency there is. i think that time’s now for me. i can run all over the world, to every issue, caring with my big ol heart.. and yet, to what end? the world is ever-changing, injustices keep evolving. i’m at this place where i am toying with the idea that the best thing i can do is to experiment with creating a life that is healing in its essence, instead of engaging with healing all of these other cultural stories. it’s overwhelming, to face all of the environmental/social travesties. maybe the best thing i can do now, after having faced many heaps of family karma, is create a garden and tend it and share the abundance. toying with this one. some thoughts. xoxo wren

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  3. Wow.. What a read Wren! I was laughing and crying reading it!
    I think it is a very real and brave thing you did in response to your grandmother’s death. So many people just push grief aside and let it eat away, repeating the disappointments of the generations that went before.
    I also believe that your grandmother was not alone in feeling the way she did. So many unique and luminous women have gone unnoticed in this (past?) age of patriarch blindness, their genious and love forever lost.. Unless.. We take it upon ourselves to live out the life force they kept hidden within themselves..!
    It is also deeply inspiring how thoroughly you allowed this experience to transform your being. Moving from Christian elite athlete to the open, receptive and radical individual you are today is a pretty big step! If anything, I think this speaks of the immense strength of the bond you shared with your grandmother. You really *saw* her like few (if any) dared! For is it not so, that each and every life is wholly precious and worthy of celebration in its own right? A life uncelebrated, dreams unlived, loved unresponded.. These are all terrible tragedies, to which we can only respond with a fierce passion for life, the reciprocation of love in our relations and the pursuit of our dreams..
    In sacred duty to life itself and Her great Matriarch, Mama Earth ❤

    Reading this story makes me feel in touch with life. Thank you dear Wren, for sharing your story! ❤

    – M

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