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The Flor-Ala

The Student News Site of University of North Alabama

The Flor-Ala

The Student News Site of University of North Alabama

The Flor-Ala

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Empathetic grief: growing through loss

Whitney Veazey

My first experience with real, true loss was my maternal grandfather’s passing. I was five years old. Truthfully, I don’t remember much of that day. Most of my memories are flashbulbs that come and go with little context. I was sitting on a bed eating lukewarm McDonald’s while my older family said their goodbyes. My dad came in and told me what we had grown to expect after his latest cancer prognosis. It didn’t make the loss hurt any less.

I remember more from the funeral itself. I was dressed in a black coat that swallowed my small frame. It was a cold February day, and I kept wiping my runny nose with the rough material of my coat. I had a raw nose and upper lip for a couple of weeks after. My mom would apply diaper cream on the sensitive area to ease the stinging.

I remember leaving a small, hand-drawn card in his open casket. My sisters and cousin had done the same. I was slightly hesitant to approach, not knowing what to expect. All I saw was my grandfather. He was dressed in his Air Force blues. I had never seen him in them, but he looked well-polished. If I had not been so well-educated on death, I would have assumed he was sleeping.

I covered my ears during the 21-gun salute. 

He is buried in the humble graveyard behind my childhood church. My little sister sometimes eats her breakfast at his grave, polishing it up if needed.

The next loss I distinctly remember, and a much clearer recollection, was my paternal grandmother. She was somewhat of an eclectic. As I grew older, I saw how our personalities mirrored one another. She was witty and quick and had an excellent taste for British television. 

I was fourteen years old when she passed away. It was a heart attack as she was leaving to walk her dog. I had seen her six days earlier, but had gotten a new phone and didn’t say much to her. I regretted it once I found out. I should have said more.

While cleaning out her apartment, I took a few tokens. A few old t-shirts, a book about the British monarchy and a copy of Lois Wright’s “My Life at Grey Gardens.” The latter two remain on my bookshelf today. I found peace in the scraps of her I still had left. 

Contrasting my helplessness following my grandfather’s death, I felt the need to hold my family together. No one asked me to, but it was the best way I knew how to cope. Everyone was a mess. Someone needed to put on a brave face, and I decided that would be me. 

I was the last person to fall asleep the day she died. I cleaned up the house, listening to Stevie Nicks because it made me think of her. When I got to my bedroom, I cried. I had cried earlier in the day, but stoicized once my father showed up. I didn’t see him cry much before, but he was a wreck. 

Christmas was a little over a week later. We rented a cabin to try and cheer up for the holidays. I like to think it worked.

I found my grief to be something I always needed to hide. I hate when people worry over me or treat me with kid gloves. Especially if I am grieving a person, I would rather be alone in my sadness. I feel like that’s a common sentiment to hold. 

Last week, my little sister Ellie (a nickname, in case she is feeling private) unexpectedly had a very close friend pass away. She is only 17, and her friend was nearing his 20th birthday. Death was something I had shoved to the back of my mind. I had a former classmate pass away in a car accident my senior year of high school, and my resulting existential crisis was brief but jarring. My sister had never had something similar happen to her. 

Our relationship had fallen into a lull in the past year. I had become as busy as a partially lazy, partially workaholic person can be. On top of that, I am in a stable, nearly long-term relationship. My commitments had fallen to other places, and I let Ellie fall on my priority list. 

It isn’t my proudest action. I know I failed as a big sister. I will be the first person to admit that.

The day after his death, I took Ellie shopping and to lunch. “All expenses paid. Get anything you want.”

Her picks were mild for that of a teenage girl. Starbucks, mascara, a hoodie from a brand she likes. I felt almost awkward in my approach to her, unsure how to engage with my own little sister. We had been so close before, but I had allowed our relationship to change.

On the way to lunch, we talked about mental health. She is aware of my past struggles, and I have never hesitated to be open with them. I tried to give her reassurance about her friend’s passing by sharing my experience.

I became more careful in my interactions with her, erasing the dramatic vocabulary of “I’m going to kill myself” after every minor inconvenience. She seems to appreciate the gesture.

I finally felt that sisterly bond, that “click,” return while watching her perform in my childhood church’s praise band. She sang two songs dedicated to her friend, “Gratitude” by Brandon Lake and “Dancing in the Sky” by Dani and Lizzy, and made it through the latter with tear-streaked cheeks and shaky breath. But she did it. 

Her grief was the opposite of mine. Her grief was loud. Her grief existed beyond the comfort of her bedroom walls. She wasn’t scared to show how she felt.

I was so proud at that moment, I could have run up on stage and hugged her. In fact, I wanted to at seeing her overcome with emotions. I held my pride in until the sermon was over and she asked me to help her take her guitar to her car.

We leaned up against the warm metal of her sports car, talking about grief and faith. In her hardest times, she found comfort in God. This time was no different. Listening to and singing His word gave her a sense of peace. She wanted to do the same for others.

Without realizing it, she had done that for me. Over my life, my faith has wavered. I feel it is common for most Christians, but seeing her relationship with Him become so strong made me wish for the same. 

She is one of the bravest people I have ever met. I learn more from her than she probably does from me. She still teaches me lessons about life.

I don’t know if she knows it, but she is one of my favorite people on the planet. I’m glad she hasn’t let her grief take away her spark. It deserves to be shared with the world.

As we reentered the church, I looked over at the quaint graveyard and saw the smooth black stone with my grandfather’s name inscribed on it. He would be so immensely proud of her. I like to think that pride extends to me, too.

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About the Contributors
Emma Tanner, Editor-in-Chief
Emma is Editor-in-Chief of the Flor-Ala. She is a senior from Killen, Ala. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Mass Communications with a concentration in journalism and digital media. She was previously Managing Editor for the spring 2023 semester. She also served as News Editor from Jan. 2022 to Dec. 2022. She was previously a volunteer writer. Her favorite topics to cover are profiles and local news. Tanner has written since her childhood and grew a passion for journalism during high school. Aside from working on the Flor-Ala, she was also a research assistant for a psychological study at UNA and served as CASE ambassador president for the Fall 2022 semester.
Whitney Veazey, Chief Photographer

Comments (3)

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  • K

    KAOct 3, 2023 at 8:23 am

    Grateful for the bravery of this article to show your strength and your weaknesses and express your grief so eloquently. I am currently grieving and I identify with both of these sisters. Remember the mustard seed.

  • J

    JulieSep 22, 2023 at 8:22 am

    This piece is so beautifully written.

  • J

    Jeanne BrileySep 22, 2023 at 8:21 am

    What a wonderful article! Something we all can relate to.