Learning to live after loss


Story by Courtney Kueppers, Managing Editor

I was on the fourth floor of McIntyre Library that night. I needed the quiet because I was swamped trying to finish an English 110 assignment. At the time I thought my week was a living hell, overrun with assignments; in retrospect I can’t help but laugh at 18-year-old me, thinking I was so busy, but there I was.


My phone buzzed twice resulting in two missed calls from mom. Your mom calling to check in on you is not an unusual occurrence for most first semester freshman, and I was no exception, so I ignored it. Certainly my project was more important than anything mom needed at that given moment. I sent her a text, “In the library, what’s up?”  


When she didn’t respond with her usual, “Just calling to chat” message my heart sank, the weird telepathic connection my mother and I are certain we have kicked in and I knew something was wrong. Overrun by my own paranoia, I put my study materials neatly into my blue backpack and headed for the stairs to call her back. As the phone rang I descended from the fourth floor to the lobby.


You know that place in the library at the foot of the stairs? Where you can look out through the emergency doors to the main entrance and the stairs to the basement are on your left as you do? That’s where I was on Dec. 4, 2012, when my mom uttered the horrifying words “stage four cancer” through the phone.


My hands started to shake and my eyes became wet with tears immediately. Very few bad things had ever happened to my quintessential little family. We try our best to be good people: we love each other, we eat healthy, we volunteer, we vote, we are educated, we work hard.

That all lacked significance that night, as a sharp pang of reality affirmed the fact that we were not invincible and cancer does not discriminate. My paternal grandmother had stage four cancer in her colon.


The rest of the night was a blur. Mom said something about staying positive, starting chemo, blah, blah, blah, the words all melded together as my mind began to race. I remember walking out of the library, greeted by the sting of a cold night in early December. I walked through the campus mall, which was at that point still stricken with fences and dirt piles.


I made my way to the front of Schofield Hall and sat on the front steps, where I retrieved my phone from my pocket and called my best friends. My hands shook from the cold but also from fear: fear of the unknown, fear of what the future held.


I wept. I cried a lot that night and in the 22 months since that night.


After rounds of chemo, radiation, more chemo, more radiation, increased doses of chemo and many hours of reflection, laughing and love, my grandma died, two weeks ago today.

I remember the first time I saw her after she was diagnosed. I remember thinking: she looks just like my grandma always has, only now she has cancer. I remember thinking: this isn’t so bad, we can handle this.


Some people get plopped into families in this world where they have little to no relationship with their parent’s parents, others get grandparents who they visit on Christmas and Easter but otherwise feel rather neutral about and others yet are gifted with grandparents who influence them, inspire them and ultimately shape them into the person they become. I am a proud member of the third group.


My grandma Irene was the type of person who others felt fortunate to meet. So for those of us who were her kin, well, we were certainly born under a lucky star. She was infectious.


Everyone who knew her has a story of how she made their world a better one. This became increasingly obvious last week when I stood in an all black suit, in a room which was packed wall to wall with people, all there to celebrate her life. Folks I mainly recognized from photos on my grandparent’s fridge approached me, all saying things like, “Courtney, your grandmother was so proud of you, this one time we…”


She was a shining star in a world full of mediocrity. Like my mother said to a full church, during quite possibly the most beautiful eulogy ever given, “cancer didn’t win, she simply decided she had better places to go.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.


In the late ‘90s my grandparents traded the home they raised their three sons in for a townhouse and a lake home in northern Minnesota. That cabin has been the cornerstone of our family bonding in the decade and a half since. It has been home to countless laughs, games of dice around the kitchen table and stories of days gone by told ‘round the campfire.


Last July, when it was obvious grandma’s days were dwindling, I sat with her on the porch of that cabin and held her hand. We looked out on the water and she said to me, “We’ve had a lot of good times, haven’t we, Court?” We most certainly have.


Those good times are what we have now. It is those moments of joy that I will cling to from now until forever as I remember my grandmother.


She is the first person I have really loved to die. In the last two weeks I have learned the grieving process is not something you can prepare for and it’s not something that happens overnight. No, when you lose a truly good one, it takes a long time to find the “new normal” as my dad keeps calling it.


Life without my grandma is not something I am enthused by, it’s not something I am interested in, but it’s here and it’s happening. Sometimes, I laugh, sometimes, everything feels completely fine and sometimes, I am walking to campus and all of a sudden I am overrun by sadness, but I am figuring it out.


Ultimately, I find great comfort in the fact that, for 20 years, I got to be the granddaughter of a truly beautiful person.