Remembering and forgetting: grief and its many forms

29 November 2021

For National Grief Awareness Week, one UCL student discusses their experience of a recent loss, and the impact (or not) of religion in coming to terms with loss.

Pink blossom against a bright blue sky

I’m one of those extremely lucky individuals who reaches adulthood without ever losing someone they love. So, when my grandmother passed away earlier this year, my first thought was that I’d forever retain a crystal-clear image of her brown dimpled face and her dark questioning eyes that would dart across a packed room of relatives and make a mental note of who wasn’t in attendance so she could save them some food in a Tupperware. I’d always remember her haughty pride juxtaposed by her maudlin core. In turn, she’d seen me grow up, move away far from home, and start university, on the cusp of a life full of opportunity and independence women of her generation and standing could only dream of.

In other words, I’d have no problems remembering her full of life. What I didn’t expect was to struggle with imagining her after death. In the days that followed, I experienced, a seismic shift in the bed of atheist principles and scepticism I’d tended since childhood.

Death being the epicentre of religious traditions and philosophical inquiry, its sudden imposition prompts profound soul-searching. We humans are programmed to find meaning and connection in arbitrary and disparate events as a self-survival mechanism. My grandmother’s passing was so unexpected, so sudden, that my family members struggled to reconcile the momentous event. For someone who would grip and weep over you during every goodbye, it felt very out of character for her to depart so perfunctorily.

Though grounded by the Catholic Church, Dominicans, like most Latinos, are extremely superstitious people. Though the relationship between Catholicism and superstition might seem suspect or even incompatible, the synastry is the product of colonialism, slavery, and migration, bringing together European Christianity and the African diasporic religion of Santería, to create an assortment of myths and tales passed down from generation to generation.  

Pursuant to those traditions, I watched as family members retraced their metaphysical steps over coffee. They reinterpreted past dreams as warnings, present dreams, and happenings as direct messages from her: a Red admiral on the windowsill, a buffering radio frequency, cat mugs turned upside down. Such investigations aside, they all found solace in the belief that she hadn’t simply ceased to exist, but had merely moved to the next room, a happier place reserved for moral perfectionists, a prosperous paradise. Religion anchored their anxieties, assuaged the sharp pain of the unexpectedness of her passing. “If nothing else,” my uncle would say, “we know she’s in peace now. She gave us no warning that she was leaving, but if she’s content, we can forgive her abruptness.”

As for me, it all fell depressingly flat. As an atheist and sceptic, I couldn’t silence the irritated and exhausted voice in my head that these were mere platitudes, even if I nodded along diplomatically. Nevertheless, it’s very uncomfortable to accept a definite ending, to accept that there is nothing waiting for someone you love. For the very first time in my life, I felt extremely envious of believers, of their belief system that could bring them peace and infuse their lives with meaning, coherence, and understanding. Me, I felt at the behest of life’s random and chaotic humour, and having lost someone, I ironically felt the weight of having no belief at all, not in religion, nor superstition, nor anything in between.

What changed things for me was the birth of my cousin, two days after my grandmother passed away. I hadn’t slept since we received the news, so the two events seemed to occur concurrently, and you can only imagine how such a transition might send one into a tailspin.

But being in that delivery room with my auntie was the most incredible experience of my life. My heart was very heavy, yet so open, so inviting, to this tiny being. Seeing her emerge, blessed with our dark hair and eyes, I wept, feeling a sublime wave of relief. I felt I finally understood the essence of life. Like a revolving door, being human involves beginnings and endings, arrivals, and departures. Life sprung from death just as day emerges from the night, and eventually, the day will dilute into night, and so on.

Death is an inevitable and unavoidable condition, and so, it truly matters what you do for loved ones during life. Express your love and gratitude unabashedly, show others kindness. I think this is whether atheists and believers can find a common ground. And as I held my baby cousin in her first few months of life, I thought what an easy task it will be to treasure her unconditionally.

I realised the only thing I really needed was to remember my grandmother in life, and the moments I shared with her. I’m grateful that I always told her I loved her at least, but the sadness of things left unsaid I can learn from and aim to be more open with the people still here with me. My cousin carries my grandmother’s first name now, and I’ll have the honour of being her godmother, or ‘witness’ when she is baptised in a few months’ time. I don’t believe in the Roman Catholic Church, so I won’t be much help in her lifelong spiritual formation, but I will tell her how her birth helped me to understand death, how she’s a living reminder of why we must put love first, and how much I love her, simply for being here and sharing life while our existences overlap. 

Support available from UCL

Join our online events happening from 6 to 14 December to mark National Grief Awareness Week. 

Register with Student Psychological and Counselling Services. 

Explore our bereavement resources, including practical advice, counselling and external support.