Handling the death of a family member

How a bump in the road doesn’t have to be a bump in your life

More stories from Austin Mai



Austin Mai, Editor in Chief of The Spectator, and his grandmother, Judy, celebrate his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 2014.

It was just past 7 p.m. on Aug. 7.

My friend and girlfriend were with me at my house getting ready for a night of your standard college-aged shenanigans when my mom called.

Her voice barely made it through the pain and heartache she was dealing with. Abrasive sniffling and her uncommon pauses dropped my heart to the earth’s core.

“Austin,” she said. “Are you home?”

I rushed upstairs expecting to see her sitting on the couch, but the ground floor was dark and empty. It was just me and my mom, through the phone.

“She’s gone honey,” she said.

My grandmother was dead.

She was diagnosed about two months before with stage four ovarian cancer. Our family was dumbstruck with fear. Our matriarch, who had lived a healthy life, was now thrown into a fight for her life.

My grandma’s approach to the situation was the most difficult thing for me to handle. After the diagnosis, she treated her family’s pain and heartache while she was treated with chemotherapy. She couldn’t stand to be the victim and continued to spend her time supporting us as we tried to support her. She only saw family in distress who needed her support.

She’d always say it was just another bump in the road. And in the hospital room after her body had started to go weak, she said we’d all be laughing about this by Christmas.


The last time I visited her was at my grandparent’s home in Mondovi. It was nice but I’m not sure if any of us could shake the eerie, unnatural feeling enveloping the house. I was happy to be there and spend time with her, but eating her food and hearing her laugh served as a grim reminder of how we couldn’t be sure how much time we might have left with her.

I gathered my things to leave and started to cry again. I tried to suck it up because the last thing I wanted was to hurt my grandma anymore, but she came over to me and grabbed me before I could calm myself. I soaked the shoulder of her shirt and couldn’t help but inhale her thinning hair as I gasped for breath.

She kissed me and whispered “It’ll all be OK.”

The tears came faster, my face turned red, but I felt relieved.

Every time my family left my grandparent’s house growing up, my grandma would go to the front window and wave until we were out of sight.

I left the house, got in my car and started to drive away. I looked to the window and this time, she wasn’t there.

I have never cried harder in my life than I did after that moment. I pulled over and my girlfriend tried to console me. I felt as though my grandma was already gone. I wanted to turn around, go back and cry in her arms until I fell asleep. But I didn’t.

I thought I’d have another chance to speak with her, to see her again. That was the last time I talked to her.

Until replaced, it will be the biggest regret of my life.

There’s so much I wanted to say that I’m unsure if I made clear enough to her. I love everything about her.

I love how tough she was on my mom and her siblings, because I couldn’t ask for better family than I have now. I love how she spoiled me, but tried to keep me grounded. I love how much she loved me and how proud of me she was that she posted on nearly every Facebook post to remind me of it, despite how embarrassed I was at the time.

At least I have those posts to look back at now.

After my mom’s call, I went to the hospital only five blocks away from the house. My family was in disarray. It hurt so much to see my family so distraught, but nothing crushed me more than seeing my grandpa.

My entire life he was the epitome of the classic patriarch. He was never deterred by any problem and he handled everything with confidence and the belief that there was nothing he couldn’t fix. But he couldn’t fix this.

I saw him crying, a sight that I had never seen before now. I went to him and hugged him and the first thing he said to me was “she loved you so much Austin.”

I couldn’t believe that happened. I was supposed to be there for him and all he could do is be there for me. It was my grandma’s best quality and he reflected it when I needed it most.

Moving on

After my grandmother’s death, my family discussed her request for no funeral but instead, a celebration of her life. At first, my family’s decision to go ahead with a funeral really upset me. I didn’t think there was anything we could’ve done to dishonor her more than disregard some of her final remarks.

The funeral, which ended up more of a celebration of life instead of the traditional funeral, was important for helping my family mourn. I knew my grandma didn’t want it because she didn’t want anyone to be sad, but it helped many more than just my family.

Visitors expressed how kind she was or what kind of impact she made on them. This service was for Mondovi, its people and the hole she left in the town.

The hardest I cried that day was when we returned to the house after the service. I carried her urn into the house and was overwhelmed before I even made it to the patio. It felt so wrong. She should have been here. But I couldn’t be more proud to be the person to bring her back home.

We finally had the true celebration of life in the beginning of October. I thought it was going to be overwhelming, but it undoubtedly helped the most during this grieving process. Her siblings and friends filled the house with laughter and memories of better times.

The toughest part for me was the trickery I faced all day. I walked through the house and swore I heard her voice. I rounded corners and would see her face through the crowd.

My great-aunt Cheri embraced me during the celebration of life at the house earlier that day and I said, “I wish she wasn’t gone.”

She gave me a stern look and said, “Austin, she isn’t gone.”

I was annoyed more than I should have been by that comment at the time, but I think Cheri is right. Her energy is constantly around me.

It’ll all be OK

I returned to Eau Claire before my parents on the night of the celebration of life. Not too long after, I received texts from my mom saying her and my dad were in an accident on the way home. My brain flushed everything and I called her. Everything was fine and only a deer was hurt in the process, but it rocked me.

In all of the recent madness, I had never considered what it’d be like to lose either of my parents, let alone both of them. My mom said she felt like my grandma was with her in that moment. I still can’t shake this feeling that she’s with me too.

My mom recently showed me a note from my grandma written over the last few days of her life. In essence, she was prepared for death. She wrote of smelling the scent of her father’s Swisher cigarettes and how it brought her peace during her final struggles. Reading that helped some of my pain dissolve.

Regardless, I still feel sick to my stomach.

My younger cousins won’t get to have her during the trials of puberty, and I fear they may not even remember her face or her compassion as they grow up. My children won’t have the chance to have “great-grandma Judy” in their lives.

All I can do is hope all of the people whose lives were affected by grandma feel this same energy.

I hope I never lose this feeling.