What I Learned From My Grandmother Passing

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I was doing so well with posting regularly up until Christmas, and then–wham!–the holidays came, and I broke my routine. I’ve been working on my blog on the back end, cleaning up and categorizing posts so that readers can actually find content.

I thought I’d be up and running with projects again since the kids just started back to school this week after a long Winter Break., but instead, this week I’ve been focusing on putting together a video tribute to my grandmother that just passed away on New Year’s Eve.


Charlotte Hull - A Memorial


I want to step away from DIY for a moment to reflect on what this moment has taught me.

(I love me a good life lesson).

Alzheimer’s was an ugly disease that robbed my grandmother of who she was and the person people knew her to be. But oddly enough, it also gave our family something unexpected:

The understanding of what “family” really means. 

Let me explain.

My mom and Nanny didn’t have the greatest relationship when Mom was growing up. Being a white girl in a predominately white town in the 60’s, it wasn’t hard being ostracized for dating black men. As punishment, she was kicked out of the house, given the boot.

For years, my mom and grandmother were estranged, but somewhere along the way, they reunited. On weekends, we started going over to Nanny’s house, picking her up to take her to work, or just going for drives and getting ice cream. It became our weekend ritual.

Despite seeing her often, I don’t remember being close to her. My sister and I grew up jealous that she favorited other grandkids, and that sentiment followed us throughout the years. I really think it’s the reason I lost touch with my grandmother–never really calling often enough to say hello…seeing her mostly at holidays or family funerals…thinking she wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care.

But I sit here with a letter in my hand–one that she wrote to me when I was 20, away at college in Miami for a semester.

Pulling out that letter now, after her passing, I see things much more clearly:

She cared, but never knew how to show it.

This letter is proof.

Letter from Nanny


Then I realized that our whole family is this way. We’re a shell of a family that has never been close.

Not because we don’t love each other, but because this is the habit, the expectation that we have set for our family. It’s all that we know.

We don’t interact with each other, we don’t hang out “just because,” and when we do see each other at Christmas and funerals, we make small talk like the strangers we are.

But Alzheimer’s exposed those barriers.

Years later after the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, my mom did the most selfless thing a daughter could ever do: she quit her job, rendering herself broke, and moved Nanny in with her, my sister, and my niece.

She cared for her as if she were a child, changing her when she needed to use the bathroom, feeding her when Nanny couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do it herself. I hadn’t seen anyone in our family care for another family member in this way. Ever.

One day while visiting Mom, I had to help get Nanny to the bathroom during a time when Nanny was too weak to move very much. We were losing our grasp on her, sure we were going to drop her. Mom quickly sat down on the toilet with Nanny sitting on top of her, so that we could reposition ourselves. But not before I laughed out loud and ran for a picture!




It was moments like these when you see the true meaning of family.

When you’re helping your mother to the bathroom and your muscles are aching, but you hold steady. When it’s ripping you apart emotionally (like it did Mom), but you keep forging ahead because you want the best for family.

During these moments of seeing my mom care for my grandmother, all childhood thoughts and questions about whether she really cared for us, dissipated. The Alzheimer’s may have stolen the grandmother I knew, but it replaced her with a sweet old lady that would stare at me, tell me I’m pretty, and tell me she loved me.  With Alzheimer’s, the barriers were gone.

What I learned from all this is that the word family goes deeper than just being related to someone by blood.

Family means having someone’s back, no matter how hard it is.

Family means breaking down those barriers and showing your true self to the people you love.

Family means feeling like you’ve got a soft place when you’re falling.

And my wish for 2016 is that this family of ours can take off its masks and break the uncomfortable silences and remove the barriers that prevent us from truly being what a family should be.

Nanny would want it that way.


My family


Watch the Video Tribute

For those that would like to see the video montage I put together of my grandmother, here it is:




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  1. How great that you kept a letter she wrote you. You know she loved you. Sorry for your loss. You have a great family. Sending positive thoughts your way. Love Mimi

    1. Hi, Mimi! I’m so sentimental when it comes to that kind of stuff! I have little notes that my mom wrote me from back when I was home during winter break in college–stupid little notes like, “I left some leftovers in the microwave for you. ‘Night!” I just can’t throw away stuff like that. They’re all my post prized possessions!! 🙂

  2. Deb Andrada says:

    So sorry about your grandmother…it’s always tough. What a fantastic family photo from Christmas 2014…lovely family you have. Cherish those memories…they are precious.

    1. Thanks, Deb!! You know, it’s funny–at that Christmas in 2014, I had bought my camera and tripod and was taking SO MANY pics that one of my mom’s cousins (who didn’t know me) that I was from the local newspaper. HA!! I took so many pics because I knew that they’d be the last good shots I’d get from our family while my grandmother was alive, and I was right. So glad to have captured it! I should get large sizes printed for all my family. They’d love it. Thanks, Deb!

      1. LOL! That’s a funny story!
        I think your family would definitely appreciate the enlarged photos. Those photos go a long way – I know that I always look at the photos of my mom, who passed in 2014, and it always gives me peace.
        Here’s to great family memories!

  3. Linda Moore says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passing. Sending prayers and hugs for you and your family.

    I, also, once worked on an Alzheimer’s unit and know quite well how difficult it is to care for those with this disease. Your mother is a special kind of angel for what she did. That’s love.

    Your video was beautiful and made me cry. Here’s hoping 2016 brings you closer to your family.

    1. Awww….thank you so much, Linda! I will share those kind words with you. She’s definitely a special kind of angel!!! 🙂 (P.S. My mom’s name is Linda, too).

  4. Sorry for your loss. I work in a nursing home and it is very difficult caring for Alzheimer patients, your family are angels for taking on such. Prayers to you all

    1. Bless you, Leslie, for your work in the nursing home! That’s not easy work. Thank you for all you do!

  5. Serena, what a moving post. I’m sorry for your loss. Families are complex, aren’t they? All those years of hurt feelings, estrangement and benign or actual neglect, add up. I admire your courage to try to reconnect.

    You did a wonderful job with the video tribute. I especially enjoyed the video toward the end with one of your sons kissing your grandmother and the way you swoop down and kiss him, to assure him he’s doing everything he should, even though she no longer understands.

    My mom had a sweet relationship with my older son, but by the time we second son came along, she was slipping into dementia. She called my first son by his name, but referred to my second son as “the boy.” It was sad for me and confusing for him since he was only about five at the time. He was eight when she died and doesn’t remember any of this. It’s mine to carry.

    This post really evokes a lot for me and all the commenters before me. You’ve given all of us a forum to share. Arms around you.

    1. Hey, Alys! Funny you mention that about years of hurt feelings… One of my cousins at the viewing expressed hurt feelings over some feelings from the past with my grandmother, and over the years, it was hard for her to get past them, so she didn’t reach out to my grandmother over the past several years. So you’re right, years of hurt aren’t wiped away so quickly.

      That had to be really hard for your second son! Does he ever mention their relationship now that he’s an adult? Hopefully his father’s mom was there to be a great grandmother to him!

      1. Alys Milner says:

        He remembers very little about her, sad to say. Unfortunately my mother-in-law, father-in-law, mom and my namesake aunt all died in 2008. It was quite a year.

        I grew up without grandparents (just one grandfather who lived in England) and looked forward to our boys having the grandparent experience. So I also grieved the loss of what they wouldn’t have as well. My mom was 89 when she died, but my mother in law was only 69. Far too young.

  6. Serena,

    I’m sorry for your loss, my condolences to you and your family. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and watching someone go through the steps is hard. Your video tribute was beautiful and touching, may the good memories be cherished.

  7. Praying for you and your family, hun {{{hugz}}}

    I lost my Mom’s Mom to Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s Chorea. She lasted for 20 some years in that state. So heartbreaking. She ended up in a nursing home and passed away in 1994. I was not able to attend the funeral as stupid me thought that my wedding was more important at the time to a man who proved to be abusive and we split in 1998. My mother has never forgiven me for that but the home situation was not what she thought is was and that is why even at that time I left home to get away from my dad. I had tried many times to tell her the truth but she did not want to hear it.

    I finally left my parents home in 2004 with the help of my now hubby and his family. I told my mother I was leaving and moving. She disowned me on the spot. She also forced me to give up both of my precious children prior to this to whom she never told the real truth and now my children want nothing to do with me. I was never able to have another child after this and to this day it devastates me and my health is taking a bad toll due to it. I still love my children deeply and pray for them every night while I cry myself to sleep.

    So yes, I understand how Family can hurt you. I have forgiven them but that never takes the hurt and memories away.

    1. Karen, that’s awful!! Did she fill your kids’ heads with lies about you? Is there any way to write them a letter and connect with them, explaining what happened and why you weren’t around? If you haven’t, I think it’s worth a shot. How old are they now? If they’re well into their adult years, I feel like they should be more mature and able to understand adult situations that they couldn’t understand when they were kids!

  8. Dear Serena, so sorry to hear about your grandmother. But I’m so glad to hear that your family is beginning to reconnect. It’s difficult, but so worth it. And you are absolutely right, family is most important. Just know you are loved as you move ahead in the days to come. Losing our dear ones is so hard, but in time all the wonderful memories seem to rise to the top and give such comfort. Love coming your way!

    1. Thank you so much, Teckla! I was able to exchange numbers with some family I hadn’t seen in years (and in some cases, had never met before!). So odd the beautiful things that come out of death, huh? Thank you!

  9. Debra Viola says:

    Tears here. your tribute to your grandmother was beautiful, moving and sweet. I lost my 89 yo mother to Alzheimer’s back in March. Still reeling from the loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you and yours at this time. *Peace* Debra

    1. Oh, I’m so sorry, Debra. 🙁 I hope you have some good memories of her. And pictures and videos! Something to look back on to remember the good times, before Alzheimer’s stole a part of her. Thank you for sharing that.

  10. Serena,
    Thanks for sharing. My wife and I dealt with her parents and Alzheimer’s and we feel your pain. Now it’s my mom (92) who lives with us and needs constant care. Be sure to let your mom know how proud you are of her. Blessed are the care-givers. I have read your blog but never commented from near the beginning and admire your guts to follow your dream. Keep it up. Condolences on your loss.

    1. Hi, Ray! I’m not sure if I already responded, but if I didn’t, I wanted to say, thank you for commenting and sharing that about your situation! Being a caregiver is SUCH a blessing. It’s the strong people that are the caregivers, because they put aside their own grief and stress and give selflessly of themselves. That’s not easy and not everyone is cut out for it. You should give yourself a pat on the back for doing the thing that many people won’t do. Thanks for sharing this with me!

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