Seven Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandmother’s Death

Life Lessons

In death we often look for the meaning in life. As my grandmother faced her last days she often told me she lived a good life. She didn’t speak much, but she definitely wanted me to know she felt she lived a good life. But what did that really mean? What does it mean when you say you’ve lived a good life?

The truth is it wasn’t for me to figure out why she believed she lived a good life. I didn’t know everything about her life and my assumptions as to what went in to that statement would just be supposition. There is no “Good Life” meter. What would make a good life for one person may be a miserable existence for someone else. It’s a combination of the spiritual, emotional, and physical. But no one really knows the formula.

But in her death, I learned a few things about life. And I’d like to share them with you.

7 Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandmother’s Death

1. What we do will often matter more than what we say. This can be interpreted in two ways. See, my grandma didn’t say “I love you” very often. But I never doubted that she loved me very much. She often showed her love not only to me, but many others, with food. It was a common thread throughout her life to cook for others. That’s how she showed her love. The diversity in her friends was a reflection of how she saw the world. Helping others, a friendly smile, standing up for what we believe in are often heard louder than any words that pass our lips. At the same time, you can’t say one thing to make yourself look good while doing the opposite. At her funeral, few people recalled any specific words she said. Rather, they all remembered how she made them feel.

2. Speak your mind even if it’s not popular or polite. If you’ve ever spent time around people in their 80s and 90s, or even some people in their 60s and 70s, you’ve likely heard them say things that make you want to apologize to everyone within earshot. It’s not that they’re intending to be mean or rude or hurtful, they’re just telling you what they’re thinking. The filter’s gone. It’s a trait we often admire in children, but stifle as time passes. We’re taught very early not to say things that will hurt people’s feelings. And in the process, we end up silencing our voice. Sure, we don’t need to be mean or rude or hurtful. But why can’t we be honest? I had the privilege of spending many afternoons at her senior living center. I was often shocked at how matter of fact the residents were when they spoke to each other, to the staff, or, sometimes, even me. After her death, though, as I walk through the complex those same people that caught me off guard have stopped me and offered their condolences and have shared heartfelt stories of the friendship they had developed with my grandmother. The filters may be gone, but the respect isn’t.

3. You’ll never regret traveling. For a child of the depression, my grandma traveled relatively early in her life. With older sisters out of the house, she was able to parlay that into a few trips to visit them. When she married my grandpa he was in the military and her life of travel began in earnest. Until the very end, it was stories of the friends made and the sites seen while traveling that often brought so much joy. Whether it was a drive to visit her sister in the heartland, a car trip with the grandkids to Disneyland, several trips to the Middle East, weeks-long excursions to China, Greece, Thailand, Canada, or Alaska and the Bearing Strait there was always a way to go. And from each trip there were memories and stories that were with her until the end.

4. Be Generous. I actually learned this from my mom, who learned it from my grandma. As I’m closing up my grandmother’s affairs I’ve found cards, letters, and notes from people she’s helped throughout her life. At her funeral, a very dear friend of hers spoke about how her kindness and friendship helped him at a key time in his life. Generosity isn’t about money. It’s about giving of ourselves unselfishly. Whether it’s our time, our love, words of encouragement, a smile, or a gentle touch, it’s nearly impossible to be over-generous. People remember our generosity and likely will continue the cycle of giving.

5. Money should never be used to control people. This is a tough one because so many people do use money this way. If you’re going to help people financially, don’t attach strings. It’s fine to set parameters if the money is to be paid back. But don’t think that money gives you the right to control their lives and choices. At the same time, we can’t let money control our lives either. Don’t get me wrong, having money is great. But if money (the presence or absence of it) holds you back from being happy then that’s a problem.

6. Take risks. There’s a difference between taking risks and engaging in risky behavior. Taking risks is about challenging yourself. Pushing your limits. Testing your own boundaries. Taking risks is about leaping with faith in your ability even if you can come up with 6,827 perfectly logical reasons why you shouldn’t. Taking risks is when you’re not sure but you have a great support system of people who want to see you succeed to your highest potential and not settle for the status quo.

7. Be ¬†true to yourself. People will come and go throughout your life. Sure, some may stay for a very long time. But the reality is that over our however-many-years there will be very few people who will be part of our life for multiple decades. If we become what other people think we should be, we’ll be constantly changing to suit everyone else. Instead, even if we’re not what someone thinks we should be chances are there is a person just waiting to meet someone just like us. Quirks and all!

We should all be able to say we lived a good life!


The Bittersweet Feelings Of Mother’s Day

Mothers Day Photo

This is my mom, Eileen. She was probably 5 or 6, placing this photo right about 1950. It is undated but the back has details about the colorization. I “appropriated” this photo when I was packing up my grandmother’s house. For as long as I can remember it sat in a corner cabinet at the end of the hallway. You could easily walk past it and not even notice it among the tchotchkes and beads that my grandmother hung on a specially made holder my grandpa made.

I always noticed this photo when I’d visit my grandparent’s home. There were many photos of my mom around, but this one has always captivated me. Originally shot in black and white, the fact that my grandparents had it colorized always intrigued me. I’ve asked my grandma what made her decide to colorize it but she doesn’t remember. That was over 60 years ago.

I don’t have a lot of photos of my mom. She didn’t like her photo taken. She didn’t feel beautiful. She was. My mom had a great smile, which she shared a lot despite the challenges she dealt with daily. Her eyes sparkled when you looked at her. The last time I saw my mom, she was in a coma. Her eyes would open periodically and that sparkle was still there.

She wasn’t here when I became a mom, which is why my daughter shares her middle name.

Mother’s Day is a day we celebrate the women who gave us life, the women we are because of our children, and the other phenomenal women who mother, teach, and love us unconditionally.

While I miss my mom terribly, I am fortunate to have a heart filled with the love of so many other women who also taught me about the love of motherhood.

If, like me, you find Mother’s Day a challenge, I hope you know that you are loved and with time the heart will heal and seal in all the wonderful memories.


Milestones and Missing My Mom


My mom, my uncle, my Bubbie and Zadie circa 1955

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. What’s usually a very somber day for me went by without much thought. And that is both a triumph and disturbing to me at the same time. A triumph because that means that time really does heal the heart, but disturbing because every day I miss my mother and this milestone day went by without my taking extra time for her remembrance.

To be honest, I have it in my head that her anniversary is the 25th this year. See, on the Jewish calendar the day is always the same but date on the secular calendar that matches the Jewish calendar date is not always the same. I know, it’s kind of weird. It’s the same reason Hanukkah is sometimes around Thanksgiving and other years (like this year) around Christmas. But, I got a letter from the synagogue reminding me that my mom’s yahrzeit (Yiddish for anniversary, but only used with reference to the anniversary of a death) will be November 25th. I was so glad to know that because I had thought it would be on the 11th and I’d be at Disney World (although, I’m sure my mom would approve of being remembered while at Disney World). So, I pushed it to the post-Disney part of my brain.

But November 6th came and nearly went, without me breaking down because I miss my mom. The day was not the sad reminder that she’s been gone almost half my life. Instead, my thoughts of her were of the joys I had as a child and young adult and how she’d be so proud of me. And as I closed my eyes to go to sleep it was then I realized that soon I will have lived more than half my life without her.

I belong to the sorority of motherless-daughters. I wish I didn’t. But I am grateful to have had the 21 years with the amazing woman who was my mother.