My grandmother was mentally ill. Nobody knew exactly what was wrong with her, just that she was very strange. Back then people didn’t talk about mental illness.
Recently my aunts have discussed Grandma, and they think she had schizophrenia. But there was never a real diagnosis. And her brother, my great uncle, spent a majority of his life in an institution after he tried to kill their whole family. I really wish they had both been blessed with our current understanding of mental illness. I wonder how it would have changed things for them.
I’ve been thinking about Grandma because my friend’s mom just died. She too struggled with mental illness. And as I have tried to help and comfort my friend, I remembered an amazing insight I got at my grandma’s funeral. First I have to set the scene.
Before the funeral, all the adult ladies in my family gathered to help dress Grandma in her funeral clothes. I remember thinking she looked so peaceful. Her hand felt like a sandbag. That’s the best way to describe it because it wasn’t like a regular hand. Such a change had come over her in death. It really felt clear to me that she wasn’t there anymore.
I was choked up and turned away from the ladies gathered with Grandma’s body. I didn’t want to cry in front of them. When I looked across the room with watery eyes, I saw something amazing. I saw my grandma standing there, smiling at me. In life, she rarely smiled. But there she was truly smiling with real joy in her eyes. I could feel that she was glad to see us all there. I could feel that she loved me and that she was truly happy.
As I blinked many times, thinking I had lost my mind, I saw my grandma turn around and walk out of the room to join my grandpa in the hallway. I hadn’t noticed him before. He died before I was born. And the two of them left together.
It’s taken me awhile to process what I saw. My grandma didn’t look solid when I saw her, and all I can think is that I was seeing her soul, her spirit. But the most stunning part of this was that I saw a happy woman. That was so different from the woman I knew.
We used to joke that Grandma wasn’t satisfied ‘till you were crying. She would come visit and would tell these stories. She was so deeply somber, and she would sit next to you and hold your hands, and talk. And before the conversation, before the story was over you would be in tears. Every time.
In fairness, she survived the Great Depression and WW2. She had been divorced with three little children to raise on her own. So she had seen a lot of darkness and felt a lot of heartaches. And it had affected her deeply.
However, the woman I saw standing in that room before Grandma’s funeral that day was not heavy or somber. It was a revelation to me. In that experience, I learned something about death. We are born as blank slates and every experience we have in life affects us. It colors our world and shapes who we are. And when we “get to know” someone, we are also getting to know the sum total of their experiences.
Then there is the biological component. You see, most of my life my grandma had Alzheimer’s. She lived in a facility for over a dozen years, and eventually died of colon cancer. The last time I saw her, she had no idea who I was. She thought I was a nice nurse. And in that final interaction, I saw her smile for the first time in my life. She looked free and happy and died a few days later.
My theory is that when Grandma died, and she left this body behind, she also left behind all the sickness, both physical and mental. Sounds logical, right? But consider this for a minute. Illness affects us. It can affect your mood, your abilities, and your point of view. With that filter removed, we see clearly. My grandma had been surrounded with sorrow all her life. But in death, she was able to let that sorrow go. It was lifted off her.
Now I need to be clear. I am NOT advocating suicide or encouraging death as an avenue to freedom. I am simply sharing what I learned that we are different people when all the heartache and illness is removed. I think this can be done through the power of the Atonement of the Savior anytime we are able to accept it. Personally, I am working to remove the darkness and heartache from my own soul while I am alive, with the help of my Savior and a talented therapist.
I wish Grandma could have had joy in this life. But I am comforted to know that she has found it in the next life. I pray that all those who had a grandma like mine can find peace knowing that when they meet again, it will be a happy time. And that their loved one will be much different than they remembered.
Abby is a one of those women who accidentally finds herself on the PTA board. She loves to be involved, and nothing matters more to her than her family and her faith. She comes from a family with many autistic members. And now she gets to see how her mother felt raising an autistic son. As she wades into this new world, she invites us to join her. Hopefully, we will all learn something new along the way. If you or a family member have autism yourself, Abby wants you to know that this isn't a bad thing. It's just an adjustment, and you or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will learn this new language.