What is True Adulthood? Losing Your Grandparents

I recently turned 34, and this year experienced one of the defining moments of my adult life. I lost my final surviving grandparent.

I know that, in many ways, I have been extremely fortunate to know my grandparents into my own adulthood. I was just a teenager when my paternal grandmother passed away, but consider myself lucky to have had my other grandparents in my life for so long. Shortly after I got married seven years ago, my paternal grandfather went to meet her. Four years ago, I lost my Grandad on my mom’s side, and earlier in the summer my Grandma finally passed away after a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Their deaths came at difficult moments for me – particularly that of my grandfather, when I was struggling to balance life in America with being so far from my family, as well as trying to conceive – and as Christmas approaches I’m keenly aware of a change in my own status, and in the structure of our family. Life moves forward, but my grandparents are gone.

There are lots of defining moments of adulthood. Some are truly wonderful… graduating college, getting your first “real” job, buying a home. Getting married, moving across country, getting a dog, having children. Some are earth-shatteringly horrible… struggling with infertility, losing a baby or child, facing illness. Getting divorced, losing a job, having to make difficult financial decisions. These experiences grow us as human beings and shape our adult lives without us even realizing it. They cannot fail to leave us unmarked and unchanged. Sometimes, it’s only when we look back on how far we’ve come that we see how these monumental turning points have changed the course of our lives, even as we struggle to keep moving forwards.

Approaching my mid-30s, I’m in the stage where it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was in college (helped by the fact that I was there for a really long time earning an advanced degree). And yet, my childhood in the 90s seems like a golden idyll. Beautiful but totally removed from today – this was growing up without the internet, when kids used the home phone and teens got a cell at 16; when the fashions were questionable and the Christmas lights incandescent.

Spending time with my grandparents was a huge part of my childhood – my sister and I would spend weeks of the summer and at other times of year happily going from one set to the other. My memories of them are wonderful, sensory ones: favorite drinks and treats given freely and without question, any time of day; collecting seeds, cutting the grass or going out at night to search for slugs and snails; learning to play card games, making words in Scrabble, and doing jigsaw puzzles; baking cakes, and always getting to lick the spoon. While we did visit museums and parks, go on day trips, and visit with family and family friends, my best and most precious memories are the ordinary, everyday and totally unremarkable times we spent together.

The memory of my grandparents is in the way they patiently taught me how to bake, sew, nip tomatoes off the vine, and whistle. It’s learning how to make the perfect cup of tea for everyone in the room, put barley water in the coffee to ease digestion, cook potatoes by heating the water from cold, and wash your hands with icy water before handling pastry. I need only close my eyes to see the patterned carpets in their living rooms, remember the joy of being able to look through my Grannie’s curio cabinet, or the sound of my Grandad whistling and carrying toffees in his pockets wherever he would go. I think of how proud they were when I did well at school, how loud they cheered at choir performances, their delight at sharing our news with everyone they knew.

My grandmothers were women in the quintessential sense: neither wore trousers, at least until after I myself was an adult. They were always impeccably dressed and coiffed; they kept beautiful, immaculately clean houses and had many trinkets. Though neither could drive, they were often the quiet but forceful driving force behind decisions made. My grandfathers were quite different, yet in many ways the same – social, outgoing, hard-working, a wartime generation who grew up with a sense of duty they carried throughout their whole lives.

The loss of my grandparents, though staggered through my late 20s and early 30s, has been a devastating one. In many ways it has been more of a coming of age than having a child of my own – a true defining point of my adulthood, because it left me with the knowledge that, without question, I am full grown. While I was ready for my family to grow, I wasn’t ready for it to shrink. Their loss reminds me that as our family tree grows, I’ve gone from occupying a place in the new growth to the middle branches in what feels like a startlingly fast period of time. While I’m sad that my son never got to know any of his great-grandparents, I see their traits and characteristics in him every day and that makes my heart smile.

If you’re fortunate enough to still have your grandparents, enjoy every moment of their quiet and steady presence in your life. Its one of my biggest regrets that I was so busy moving and shaping the life I have now, that I didn’t make time to call more, visit more frequently, say thank you often, and be a more tangible presence in their final years. I wish they knew how interested in and proud of them I continue to be, how grateful I am for their love and help, and how I long for one more conversation as I get older (and hopefully wiser).

Grieving them is hard and, at a distance from my family and where I grew up, frequently lonely. But whether the wound is raw or scarred over with time, the loss of those we love never shrinks – our world just grows bigger around the hole in our hearts.

Natalie is a proud Brit, but moved to Texas at the end of 2017 to be with her husband, a native San Antonian. Their son was born in late October 2020, so her entire experience of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum has been under the cloud of Covid-19. She spent the frivolous years of her early 20s pursuing a PhD in Renaissance history, living in Venice, Italy, and teaching students. She pivoted into editing when she moved to the US, but currently has her academic pursuits on hold while she focuses on her son. Despite being in San Antonio for a few years now, she still considers herself a newbie. She loves to find out more about the history and culture of the city, explore new places, and find local businesses to support. A fastidious researcher and lover of lists, she’s always excited to share her finds and experiences with others. Favorite Restaurant: Dough Favorite Landmark: World’s Largest Cowboy Boots Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Riverwalk Christmas Lights