On Death and Expectations

Today my great-grandmother would have been 110 years old. That’s a pretty amazing age for anyone to live to, but in my family, it’s practically unheard of.

Grandma, as I called her, died at 78. I was five years old, and hers was the first wake I ever attended. In hindsight, I can say with certainty that it would have been better if I’d not been there.

Wakes – and funerals, to be honest – completely freak me out. Even now, over thirty years later, I avoid them if I can. I’m uncomfortable in the presence of death, and that stems from the open casket at Grandma’s wake. I can remember relatives telling me to go up and say goodbye. I can also remember being terrified that Grandma would open her eyes and sit up and talk to me.

I’ve attended a handful of wakes since that first one, and I’ve been anxious each time. The open caskets, the declarations of how “good” the deceased looks… it’s a bit too much for me. When my dad died a few years ago, I was in the room. My being capable of being there for that moment was a surprise, even to me. My almost immediate exit of the room? Not so surprising. We did not have a service for my dad, and I chose not to spend time with his body at the funeral home later. I know that many people need that moment of closure, but I’m not many people, and I am okay with my decision.

Whenever a friend or acquaintance loses someone, I offer my condolences. And I stress out about attending the services. Some time last year, I made the decision to stop stressing. I’ve decided that instead of worrying about whether I should go or not and worrying about how I will react to the event, I just won’t go to wakes. I can pay my respects in other ways. And I can stand by this decision without worrying about how it will look, how others will react. The reactions of others aren’t mine to control. And that fact is a larger one that I need to remember in many other facets of my life.

I don’t know exactly why it was decided that I should attend my great-grandmother’s open casket as a five-year old. Perhaps it was a decision based on familial expectation. Perhaps it was an expectation that should have been questioned.

I know that there is a common understanding that we must feel obligated to do things, to attend events, to practice societal norms because it’s “right” to do so. But the older I get, the more I have to question who gets to tell us what is “wrong” in a myriad of situations. Who gets to make the call as to whether it’s better to look out for oneself (or one’s loved ones) or to go with the flow because it’s expected?

I wish I had more memories of Grandma when she was alive, but I can’t say I remember much from the first few years of my life. I’d prefer not to have the memory of her wake looming over snapshots of eating donuts in her kitchen or sitting on my grandparents’ couch with her, but I am grateful for the lesson I’m still learning from that experience.



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