I never met either of my grandfathers. One died of cancer a few months before I was born. The other lived in Germany. When I was 14, my German grandpa (“Opa”) died after having suffered a stroke. I had chatted briefly with him on the phone a few times over the years, but I had never met him.
Back in those days, communication with Europe was far more expensive than it is today. We would generally talk on the phone with my German grandparents on Christmas and maybe a couple of other times each year. But my German was pretty rudimentary and my grandparents spoke no English. So the phone conversations mostly involved my parents.
Travel to Europe was pretty expensive back then as well. After years of saving, my parents finally managed to scrape together enough money to visit the relatives in Germany when I was eight. This was made possible thanks to good neighbors that took each of us kids into their homes for several weeks while my parents were away.
Over the next few years, my parents communicated fairly regularly with the German family members; mostly by mail, but also by phone calls. Still, it was not uncommon for lapses in communication to extend several months at a time. Given our family’s budget, travel to Germany was out of the question.
Late in my 15th summer, my Dad received a letter from his sister. She explained that my Opa had passed away about a month earlier. Dad was stunned. He couldn’t understand why nobody had bothered to call him. He would have moved heaven and earth to attend the funeral, but he didn’t even know about it.
At the time, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Dad’s location in America seemed to work pretty well with regard to family relationships. He always said that he “felt like a fish out of water” in his own family and that moving to America had improved the relationship. In other words, he wasn’t that close with his parents and siblings.
But the failure of Dad’s mother and siblings to immediately notify him of his own father’s death left him with a terrible sense of betrayal. As is the common nature of grief, I’m sure that this was mingled with a certain amount of guilt. As a self absorbed and callow teenager, I didn’t appreciate what Dad was going through. I figured that my 75-year-old Opa was so ancient that he was bound to kick off sooner or later. What was the big deal? (By the way, 75 no longer looks so terribly old to me.)
I think you only really gain some comprehension of these kinds of things by experiencing them yourself. While most of us expect to deal with the deaths of our parents, their unexpected passing can leave us grappling with the raw edge of grief. The standard steps in the grieving process necessarily follow at their own pace.
On the other hand, I watched Dad decline for a year and a half until he mercifully passed away. By that time, most of the family members had already been going through the stages of grief for some time. We were prepared for the impending closure.
When we met with the funeral director a short time after Dad’s body was picked up, we already had the obituary written and the funeral program planned. The director noted that we seemed relatively relaxed about the affair. But I think we had all simply been through most of the grieving process by then.
About three years after Opa passed away, my brother finished serving a mission for the LDS Church in another part of Germany. He then traveled and spent some time with our German relatives. They loved it, especially given the fact that my brother could speak fluent German. This helped heal some of the rift that existed between Dad and his family.
A couple of years later, another brother wrapped up his mission in Finland. He too wanted to visit our German relatives. But he was fluent in Finnish, not German. So Mom and Dad arranged to travel to Germany to be with him. It had been a dozen years since their previous visit. My youngest brother went along too. This visit helped further repair relations. By the time I visited two years later, following my mission to Norway, family relationships were in pretty good shape.
Family structures are a deeply important part of our societies. Most of us sense a deep attachment to our family members, even if there are significant differences between us. I never knew either of my grandfathers. Yet, because of the children that they raised, I feel like I know them somewhat. And I still feel a profound sense of connection with them.