Grasp, carry, touch, step, tug, swallow—this day was filled with action and motion. My mom emailed us a long itinerary the night before, so we’d know what to expect. I imagined her typing in Grandma’s small piano room, thoughts gathered and poured into keyboard clicks—eleven months of goodbye plans distilled into 786 words, thirteen to-dos. Grandpa’s decline was a slow and long one. We said final goodbyes for nearly a year, and Monday brought another, this time with family and friends. The day came with its own fierce resolution: Grandpa’s death would be felt—we knew he was gone, but we needed to feel.
“Everything is going really well today!” Jordan shared as we drove to the cemetery. “I didn’t drop my flowers on the way into church, and I didn’t drop Grandpa’s flag, either!” I couldn’t help but smile at my young cousin’s remarks—the day was going well, despite the circumstances, and Jordan had two very real, embodied reasons why. I turned to the back seat and nodded—Jordan’s hands firmly grasped a small bouquet of red and white carnations.
Almost five decades ago, my grandparents lost their teenage son in a bicycle accident. They didn’t talk much about it, or the funeral, or his absence. They carried on. So when my grandma asked if we—her oldest six grandchildren—would carry Grandpa’s casket, it seemed like an especially meaningful request—a direct recognition of absence. I knew the casket would be light, with all six of us—but head knowing and body knowing are different, and the slow-stepping, cool-grasped, easy carry of Grandpa’s silver casket was a knowing that rose thick in my throat.
Rose—roses. The pastor read a passage and shared a prayer. He invited us to be silent, and after a few moments, offered roses from Grandpa’s bouquet. At first, Grandma shook her head no. We stood behind her, quiet. “Are you sure?” the pastor asked. “It may be a nice memento.” Grandma paused, then reached for one—a signaled permission to choose our own. My young cousin watched the adults select their flowers. She hesitated when she was handed a rose. “You can pick your own from the bouquet!” I quickly asserted, surprising myself with a strong and fierce sense—a body kind of knowing—that choosing was important. She looked at me, and then the pastor. He knelt her way, and she gently tugged a flower free from the bunch.
Grandma didn’t linger long; her goodbyes had been daily, and she, more than anyone, knew the grief of continued parting. My little cousins curiously tiptoed around the blue velour skirt that hid the scaffold and pulleys that would soon lower the casket into its cement box. They asked hows and whys, and my mom invited them to explore with their hands and eyes, explaining how the pulleys and cranks would lower Grandpa’s body into the ground. We’d spent the morning praying and singing and talking about heaven, but this moment—hands on the mechanics of death—felt especially sacred. Jordan and I peered into the grave together. “I’ve been here before,” she shared. “Oh?” I replied, surprised. “Yes. Visiting Dad’s brother. He’s here, too.”
Earlier that day, I filled a plate high with food for my grandma—funeral chicken and funeral beef, mashed potatoes, salad, vegetables, a roll, and two pats of foil-wrapped butter. “Do you get hungry?” I asked. “I imagine you may not have much of an appetite, these last few days.” She responded, “yes, oh yes—I still get hungry.” Relieved, I watched as my slight grandma cleared her plate. Cut, fork, scoop, chew, swallow. These simple, necessary tasks offered some semblance of normalcy. Cycles of hunger and nourishment—a body kind of knowing.
Real, embodied reasons. That Monday, Grandpa’s absence rooted itself in simple, felt ways. We may know something is true, but the actions, allowing the questions, exploring the loss with hands and eyes and bodies—this, too, is a knowing, and a necessary part of grief and understanding.
Grasp, carry, touch, step, tug, swallow.
Paula Manni (‘13) works as Arts Programming Coordinator and is an arts advocate for the Calvin College community. She enjoys throwing parties on the side, and fills in the gaps with wine making, music listening, museum visiting, and Michigan exploring.