An Epiphany and Finding Happiness After Death

06/02/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Four months ago, my grandmother passed away. It was the first time I experienced the loss of a loved one, which is surprising considering that I am in my 40s. Death and all the feelings of mourning, sadness, and grieving that go along with it have eluded me for three decades, but the loss of my grandmother, who I called "Nana," has now made me aware of the void that can exist when a loved one departs from this life.

My grandmother babysat me when I was a kid. I also lived with her back when I was a struggling dancer who was saving up to move to L.A. As I sit and compose this essay, I realize that she was instrumental in making my dreams come true.

What about Nana's dreams? My grandmother was forced into marriage as a teenager. She wasn't encouraged to finish school or plan for her future. Her parents only had one goal in mind for her -- to marry her off. Her union to the man who became my grandfather was tumultuous, and at times, abusive. Six children later, they divorced, and Nana went to work in a factory where she toiled away until retirement.

She never talked about the things she missed out on, the dreams that went unfulfilled. Nana simply accepted her situation as it was and did the best she could to carve out her existence. I realize she missed out on many experiences that most of us take for granted. I'm sure she had moments of happiness, but I sometimes wonder if she was truly happy.

My grandmother never remarried. She wouldn't even entertain the thought of dating after her divorce. Instead, she found solace in God and church. I used to think it was a lonely existence until I saw all the members of her parish who came to pay their respects at the funeral home. So no, she never found another life partner; however, she was part of something that fulfilled her on a spiritual level.

In the final years of Nana's life, my mother, along with another one of my aunts, made it her priority to take care of my grandmother. There were many efforts my mom made which required sacrificing a lot of personal time and energy. Whenever I get sad about Nana's death, I remember what great care my mother took of her. Because of my mom's efforts, my grandmother was able to avoid being moved into a nursing facility and stayed in the comforts of her own home until the end. That makes me happy. It also makes me incredibly proud of the woman who I have the honor of calling not only my parent, but also one of my best friends.

Right before her casket was closed for the funeral, I kissed Nana on the forehead and silently thanked her for everything she did for me. I felt remorse that in my bratty, self-absorbed twenties, I wasn't able to express my gratitude properly. I was sad that I hadn't flown into town when she was in the hospital on life support, only coming for the wake and the funeral. I chose my job over spending time with my family. It was the one, and hopefully only, time I will ever make that kind of decision. Hindsight is always 20/20, and at that moment, it finally hit me that it's time to start making a conscious effort to utilize that 20/20 vision in the present.

Our time on this earth is shorter than we think it is. In the end, we won't be remembered for how much money we made or what we did for a living. We'll be remembered for our kindness and the compassion we extended toward others. Our life's success will be measured by the level of happiness we achieved, and if we were able to share the joy that came from that happiness with those around us. I finally get it, and it feels as if something I've been searching a while for has finally been revealed to me.

When I think of Nana I always look up toward the sky. That's probably my Catholic upbringing kicking in since I was taught as a child that heaven is up in the clouds. I remember the woman who used to watch Sábado Gigante and telenovelas every week on TV; the woman who prayed for her family's well-being and safety every night before going to bed. I think of the woman who endured a lot of hardships and adversity, and I hope that wherever she is now, she knows she is loved and missed. Most important, I hope she is happy.


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