My Latinidad Taught Me To Never Discuss Death, Which Made It Especially Hard And Confusing When I Lost My Grandfather
Growing up, I was lucky enough to live with my parents and my grandparents as a child. Being raised by them and under their roof meant that there were a lot of things my grandfather taught me that I know most kids learn from their parents. He taught how me to walk, how to ride a bike, and how to swim. Years after this developmental stage where I learned so many basics, my parents and I moved into our own house that was never too far for a trip to Mama and Papa’s place. In my teens I’d take the train from my university to their apartment, just so that I could spend the weekend with my favorite people on the planet. In my twenties I’d come to stay for good, to work as a journalist in New York. I was never too old to go for a slow walk, carve a pumpkin, or decorate a Christmas tree with my grandparents. I’d do anything for them, just as they had for me in childhood and I loved doing everything with them.
When my Papa passed away in February of 2016, I did not know what death was.The writer as a baby and her grandfather. / Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz
Sure, I knew the word, and I knew that it was something that happened–to plants, and batteries, and fictional movie characters, to other people’s family members and grandparents–but not to anyone that I loved personally. It was understood that discussion of death was taboo in my family and in my culture; my grandfather had led the ban on that dirty word. Anytime somebody would try to bring up the idea of death in conversation, he’d dismiss and exclaim “Dying? Let’s talk about living!” He was the epitome of life, earning him the nickname of “the happy postman” during his time as a postal worker in New York City. Everyone knew him for his round rosy cheeks, his chuckle, and his smile. I was always convinced that he carried the sun and warmth of Puerto Rico within his small, stout body. I was happy to not talk about death because of him. Why would you when you had an entire sun in the room that made you want to explore and love life just as much as he did?
This mindset of my grandfather’s, the one that said brushed off death and all that it could mean, meant that my family never sat down at the dinner table and came up with a contingency plan of what we would do if one of us did pass away.
My grandparents and parents never shared with me what it felt like when their own parents or grandparents died, and I was taught not to ask.
The writer’s sister [L], grandfather, grandmother and herself. / Photo provided by Wandy OrtizMy parents always did their best not to bring my sister and me to funerals or burials. Nobody ever talked to me about grief, mourning, or what’s appropriate in those moments.
So, when my grandfather died, I felt lost and confused. It was the first time I lost somebody so close to me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had been accustomed to this caricature of how Latinx people are supposed to act. I was meant to be the sunny comic relief, the silly clown, the bufón, the woman with a ruffled skirt and fruit basket on her head. I was fun, bright, and jovial, but it kept me from facing something inevitable. I don’t know whether to resent or thank my family for letting me live a life where I was ignorant to the realities of death.
The night I had to say my goodbyes I kissed his cold and bloated cheek, and everything smelled like stale blood instead of his aftershave. I left the hospital after sleeping on a waiting room floor for three weeks and went home to take a shower. I smelled blood for months afterward, and I’d rub my body red with a loofah trying to rid my skin and hair of the stench. For the many months that followed, I was a zombie. I didn’t eat but I did gain weight. I slept all day but I felt like I couldn’t catch enough sleep. I could never bring myself to speak and yet I couldn’t stop crying.
When I talk about my grandfather’s passing with friends who’ve lost parents or grandparents, I’m not totally sure that even they understand my grief.The writer and her grandfather/ Photo provided by Wandy Ortiz
Some of my friends have lost their grandparents and even parents, and none of them act the way I do when it comes to my grandfather. When somebody says “You’re grandpa died, right?” or asks “How did your grandpa die,” I cringe. His name and “die” are two words I learned never to say in the same sentence. When I explain that he didn’t survive a heart attack, triple bypass, and valve replacement, they tell me that that’s “normal” and “expected.” They ask me why I’m still so shocked and broken up over it, they say “he lived a good, long life,” and they tell me that that’s what happens at old age.
Many people see moving out of a loved one’s home, or throwing out their belongings or putting them in storage as healthy, helpful ways of moving on. I do not feel as if I am in a positive emotional place where I can do that. The idea of packing up all of the tokens that remind me of my abuelo and storing them away in a dark and dusty corner of my mind is hard to conceptualize. Anytime I see my mother’s face, I think of how her freckles and nose mirrored his. Each time I sign my full name I think of how I was given my middle name because it was his mother’s first.
Instead, of bottling up my grief and diverting my thoughts to something else, the way my grandfather might I have preferred, I speak to my friends and my family about what loss feels like, and what it looks like. While I’m handling my pain over his loss in a way that is very much unlike what he might have wanted, I still think he would be proud of how I have taken my hurt and turned it into a lesson on how to deal with loss in my future. Instead of shielding my kids from death, I like the idea of having discussions about it with my children when they are of age to understand what will happen when people we love die. I don’t have to stick to the narrative that to be Latina is to always be bright and happy. To be Latina can be to be in pain, in mourning, and at a loss too.
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