How To Grieve Remotely

How To Grieve Remotely

Journey well, Joyce Johns

There was a happy post planned for today but it might have to wait a bit.

You see, my grandmother, the mother of my-mother-the-psychonaut, died last night.

It wasn’t sudden, it wasn’t unexpected and it was certainly her time.

But it’s still sad.

And most of that obviously has to do with being on the other side of the world. There are less hugs to give and receive. And with the grief comes the guilt.

The guilt, too, wasn’t unexpected. In fact, emigration comes with the unsaid acknowledgment that you probably won’t ever see your elders in incarnate form again. Did you know that, before they left, US-bound Irish immigrants used to hold “American wakes” for this very reason? Those remaining in Ireland wouldn’t see these new Americans again until after death. They faced up to that and found a way to communally mark that reality. It’s a lovely, pragmatic and very Irish idea.

Clearly I’ve missed my chance for that but, speaking from experience, there are still things you can do if you are in the unfortunate situation of grieving remotely.

1. Tell someone their story

Which is where you lot come in.

Obviously, if you get to 90 years of age a certain amount of editing is required because that is a long innings. So I’m going to tell you snippets that paint a picture of the kind of woman Joyce Johns was.

  • Music was everything. She won an opera scholarship to London but then war broke out and all scholarships were declared void. So she sang for the troops instead. In fact, she was carried back on stage for an encore by American GIs stationed in Australia.
  • One day when I was ten or so she was sitting on the couch with me and asked if I would like to learn diaphrammatic breathing. This little opera trick helped me no end with my trumpet playing at the time and with pranayama ever since.
  • When I was fourteen and could finally choose electives at school I dropped music. For some reason this came up while we were visiting her in hospital and her face fell when I announced this. This was my first realisation that music was really important to her. I felt guilty.
  • Two years later when I was singing in the (mandatory) school production, after my number (which was shit) I looked out into the crowd and saw her giving me a standing ovation and crying her eyes out. Afterward she hugged me and said she had sung on that very stage fifty years before and was very proud of me.
  • Her rum balls were approximately 99.8% rum and unbelievably good. She apparently learnt this from her own mother. You see, my mother’s grandmother would make rum balls that would accidentally get all the grandchildren absolutely smashed. I have distinct memories of being about nine or ten and my mother carefully policing mine and my brothers’ rum ball intake. I subsequently found out why.
  • You all know how I feel about Buffy. Well, this love affair started with the appalling, Kuzui-ruined feature film. My mother took me and my littlest brother to see it at the cinema but we had to leave about twenty minutes in because it was too scary for him. (He was five.) I bugged my mother for weeks to take me back to see it. She refused because (a) she was too busy and (b) the film was shit. Out of the blue my grandparents rang and offered to take me somewhere or go on a picnic or something. I wanted to see Buffy. But it had left the cinemas in my town and was on its final screenings at one shitty cinema three towns up the valley. So they took me to see it and patiently sat through a really, really shit film that I absolutely adored.
  • Her hair was always immaculate (she was very glamorous) and yet she would dutifully don her paper hat every Christmas.

The last memory is actually from last night, after she had died. You see, my grandfather and her only husband pre-deceased her by about fifteen years. I’ve had numerous dream contacts with him, one of which has been verified with previously unknown real world information. So that is one of my very few clear comms channels.

Except it has been years since I have “dreamed” about him (in that magicy way. You all know what I mean.) And last night there he was. Telling me that he and nan are going away and that it has been a while since they have gone somewhere together. Then they were sitting next to each other on an airplane and holding hands.

2. Remember your physics

Entanglement means spatial distance can suck it.

3. Remember your metaphysics

It’s not like they’re in a physical location anyway. Do you think moving your body somewhere else on the face of the earth makes any difference? Are you waiting for them to get somewhere with cell coverage?

Funerals are for the living. If you want to talk to the dead you can do that anywhere.

4. Mark the event anyway

If funerals are for the living then presumably that includes you. Just because you can’t be at the funeral doesn’t mean you can’t formally pay your respects.

Why else do all this magic stuff?

5. Incorporate part of the deceased’s tradition

My grandmother was pretty churchy and I walk right past one of the grandest churches in all of Christendom every day on my way to work. (Extra points: The site used to be a temple dedicated to Diana. Go London!)

Synchronicitously (new word alert), the famous “death is nothing at all” sermon was first read out by Henry Holland in the very same church a little more than a hundred years ago:

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

This idea comforts me a lot because I know she would/will really appreciate someone saying the Prayer For The Recently Departed in St Paul’s Cathedral. She absolutely adored London.

Absolve, we beseech Thee, O Lord,
the soul of Thy servant Joyce,
from every bond of sin,
that being raised in the glory of the resurrection,
she may be refreshed among the Saints and Elect.
Through Christ our Lord.

You are of course all invited to play along at home via the old school and now little-used Catholic Prayer of Eternal Rest:

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May the soul of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Journey well, nan.

See you in a bit.


Add yours
  1. 3

    I am sorry for your loss, Gordon.

    I found grieving remotely (for my father) so difficult; in addition to coping with the grief there is as you’ve pointed out the guilt and the notable absence of hugs; the little physical touches that tell us we are not alone in our grief. Growing up Catholic and having attended a convent, i (the heathen as my grandmother used to call me) found solace in the rites and rituals of the church, the words wrapping themselves around me like the hugs i so longed to feel from family and friends.

    Today whilst reading a book, this line jumped out at me: “You travel until you arrive; and you have now come far enough”

    Good journey to your nan, Gordon – and to you. Thank you for sharing.

  2. 4

    Joyce sounds like an amazing woman; music was key to my Grandmaman as well. She started waiting about 5 years ago. When my grandfather passed, my sister was living in Lima and was unable to attend the funeral. Using Skype and my laptop, she was able to participate in the funeral service; a small comfort. Thank you for sharing the prayers.
    Annette´s last blog post ..Frigde follies

  3. 5

    thank you for sharing your memories with us. your nan sounds like a firecracker!
    when the midwest was being settled here in the states, the expectation was that you wouldn’t see your family again. once you legt the east coast, that was it. my auntie said that nebraska was so isolated for the women (men could leave the ranch/farm to meet others guarding thier cattle etc.) that some lost thier minds from the solitude.

  4. 8
    Lance Foster

    I really like your post Gordon. I moved back home four years ago partly because I knew my own Grandma was going soon, and she died that same fall. I was there on that night to witness her going. I was not there when my Grandpa left. Neither event was unexpected, but I cried anyways for a short time and then I was done. I too saw them in a dream together. Your dream of them going off together on the airplane was beautiful.

    Now where I am, here in this small city, there are no opportunities. I remain only partly employed even going on five years. Yet I do not regret it. Things are different when you get older. I am 50 now. Family and rootedness has become more important than career or excitement, of which I had plenty when I was younger. We need different things. Plus, having no children of my own, getting to know my nephews and niece as people is immensely satisfying. When it is my time, no one will remember me except for them.

    I love your post. You “hit all the right notes.” I think your grandmother would be very happy with it.

  5. 10

    Oh Gordon, I am so sorry for your loss. You are doing her proud, though, by telling her stories. You still love her, your bond with her is unbroken, though she is absent.

    I’ve found that birthdays, and days of passing over are good days to commemorate, even if you speak to your departed often, it’s good to throw them a party every now and again.
    Jow´s last blog post ..Man- where did we get all the energy

  6. 11
    Wendy S.

    I loved how you honor her with such an intimate and honest view of who she was, what she gave you and what she didn’t give you. I’ll re-read this post quite a bit I feel when it’s time for me to say goodbye to a loved one. For some reason, it’ll be much harder for me to say goodbye to my cats than some of my family members. I know that sounds quite strange..Thank you for sharing your grandmother with us.

  7. 12

    I am so sorry Gordon. When I read your news I saw in my mind’s eye my grandmother. I remembered the hours I had as a young child with my head on her lap as she would talk to my family and stroke my forehead. She never told me anything significant, but I guess the time I had with her was all I needed. I hope the heaviness leaves your heart soon.
    M´s last blog post ..Isis- Mary- Symbols &amp Magic – a journey

  8. 17

    I will admit to just sobbing my heart out after reading this post

    I/We needed that

    My Nana Dot and Grandad Ted both past on this time last year!

    My condolences to you and your family

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