Dealing with Death

By: Phillip Nagler  |  October 24, 2019

By Phillip Nagler, Opinion Editor

About a month ago, I learned a very tough lesson: One is never prepared to handle death.

Over the summer, my grandmother at age 92, became very ill. She had melanoma (skin cancer) that spread throughout her body, and in late July she had a stroke, caused by a lesion that developed in her brain. It was difficult to see my grandmother in a deteriorating state. Anyone who has ever met her knows that she had a sprightly personality with a zest for living life. I originally thought I had processed that this was it; I thought I had fully accepted that my grandmother was gone and that I was mentally prepared to say goodbye to her from this world.

Yet, at 5:37 p.m. on September 4th, when I received a text that my grandmother had passed, I was struck with emotion. I was in my apartment, about to leave for my 5:45 class in Belfer Hall. I was not able to process even the thought of this news, so I decided to go to class and act like nothing happened. Denial, the first stage of grief.

It was fairly apparent that I looked uneasy on my way to class. A couple of friends said “hi,” and one asked if I was ok when I looked down.

“I’m fine,” I said with a shaky voice. It was an obvious lie.

In retrospect, I’m surprised that I was actually able to sit through class for about twenty minutes. Upon receiving a text that said, “Sorry to hear about your grandmother, Baruch dayan haemes,” I abruptly got up and left class. I couldn’t handle people knowing what happened; I didn’t need them feeling bad for me. I decided that I needed to be isolated and mourn my grandmother, so I returned to my apartment and locked myself in my room.

As I lay in bed, a flood of incoherent thoughts filled my head. I was paralyzed. Crying at that moment seemed appropriate, but I was unable to form tears, despite how much pain I felt. After  lying silently for half an hour, I realized that I had to cancel plans for the next night. It was weird to tell my friends that my grandmother had died; I didn’t want this to be real.

They all offered to talk to me, but I wanted silence, I didn’t know what to even say. But when one of my friends texted me again a few minutes later, I decided it couldn’t hurt to talk to her for a couple of minutes.

On the phone we mostly had a casual conversation for a little while. My friend was being very supportive and she talked about her experience when her own grandmother died. She said that it was hard for her, since they were very close. She then asked if I was close with my grandmother. I told her that I was, and then my friend asked if I had any fond memories of her.

I thought for a couple of seconds and then was instantly taken to a very vivid flashback to roughly two and a half years prior. Before attending YU, I was a student in the engineering school at Cooper Union. After a rough fall semester there, I officially dropped out three weeks into the spring semester. I was ashamed to tell my friends and my parents; I felt like a total failure. For the rest of that semester, I lived at home with my parents, figuring out what to do next in life. My grandmother used to live around the corner from us, and she had noticed that I was home a lot more often. I knew that I had to tell her that I dropped out of Cooper Union, but I was so scared to do so.

When the day came along for me to tell her, I was pleasantly surprised by her reaction. My grandmother reacted to the news with a light and loving tone: “Don’t worry Phillip, so Cooper Union wasn’t for you, that’s alright, but I’m not worried, you are my Phillip, and I know that wherever you end up, you are going to be so successful.” In that moment I felt the unconditional love that my grandmother had for me. It didn’t matter what I did or who I was, she was able to make me feel loved in such an incredible and genuine way.

As I recounted this story to my friend on the phone, I started to choke up and cry. It felt so strange to cry with someone else listening; I rarely cry, and never in front of people. At the same time though, it was cathartic because it felt like I was properly honoring my grandmother’s death, by reflecting on who she was as a person.

The tears didn’t stop there. Two days later, at her funeral, I don’t think anyone else in the room cried as much as I did. When the speakers were telling stories of my grandmother, it made me remember how much she influenced me and made me the person who I am today. There were many tears of sadness, but there were also tears of joy, as I was so lucky to have had such a special person for the first 22 years of my life.

Death is an emotional roller coaster, and I am still dealing with volatile emotions weeks after my grandmother’s passing. At times, I feel like completely giving up and not finishing my senior year at YU. I’m not sure why I feel like this — perhaps I regret not spending enough time with my grandmother these last couple of years, and don’t want to lose connection to other people. But whenever I feel like quitting, I think of my grandmother and remember how she always believed in me and would want me to keep moving on and push past the grief.

So why share my story in a student publication? Well, my hope is that others dealing with death can connect to my story and feel that they are not alone. No matter where you are in life, death will never be easy to handle. But especially in a college like YU, when everyone has a busy schedule, it can sometimes feel like everything is crashing down. However hard it may be though, what keeps me motivated is remembering all that my grandmother has passed on to me. I hope my experience can be relatable, and perhaps we can all find our inner strength to push forward, even when times are overwhelmingly dark.