“Why Me?”: On Mourning My Grandmother and Commencement

By: Molly Meisels  |  April 30, 2020

By Molly Meisels

As COVID-19 forces the class of 2020 to contemplate the journeys that led us here, we try to make sense of the trauma our generation is bearing. We ask ourselves: Why me?Why us? Why now?

When my grandmother passed away on April 9, I found myself asking the same question: Why me? Why did I lose the woman who rooted for my success when no one else did? Why of her hundreds of grandchildren will I be the first to earn a bachelor’s degree? Why will this accomplishment go without a commencement? 

Of course, I know the answer to the first question. My grandmother was too ill and too old to breathe another day. As painful as her passing is, I cannot immobilize the cogs of time. As for the answer to the third question, global pandemics pay no heed to personal accomplishments. Who am I in the greater scheme of things? All these rhetorical why me?s have broken the emotional dams of my adolescent and college years, ushering me to the second question: Why will I be the first in my family to graduate? I cannot help but contemplate the second, as it is the bridge between the loss of my grandmother and the loss of my commencement. Quarantine has given us all the time in the world to ruminate, so I drown myself in floods of sentimentality. 

When our loved ones die we cannot help but revert to our most buried memories. Since my grandmother’s passing, my mind has been replaying every moment of our relationship that I can recall. It has also conjured up both the most cheerful and the most traumatic moments of my past. Every time I imagine my grandmother’s newly mounted headstone, her exhausted face as we said goodbye, and the funeral I never got to attend, I dig up a fresh memory. It isn’t often that we get to string together the memories that make us who we are. Quarantine has given us that chance. It has given me the chance to ask myself why me? over and over again. 

Why of all my Hasidic family was I the one to leave? Why did individualism and freedom gnaw at me but not occur to siblings and cousins? Why did my grandmother dedicate her emotional resources to my academic success when my sister’s passion for knowledge equaled mine? Why did I, someone who despises confrontation in my personal life, find the strength to physically and mentally fling off the yoke of my sect’s restraints?

I don’t think I will ever find answers to these why me?s. I can fabricate answers — perhaps my love for books guided my dreams, perhaps my grandmother saw herself in me, perhaps I was switched at birth — but I’ll never know the truth. I’ll never know the answers to my questions. Maybe there are no answers to our pressing questions about ourselves and our circumstances. Maybe things just are. Maybe we must let them be. 

But I am having difficulty letting things be as I end my college career in the midst of a global crisis. I cannot help but reflect on the tumultuous years that led me to a commencement-less end to my Yeshiva University journey. The thought of college commencement sustained me throughout countless adolescent rejections and failures. Now, without it, I feel lost. I feel my pain bubbling over with no release. 

While I know I’ll survive without commencement, I cannot help but mourn the loss of it. For years I envisioned professors and administrators congratulating me on my academic milestone before thousands of guests — a milestone I achieved by the power of my own resilience. Even though I am lucky to have built relationships with my professors and administrators and do not need a commencement to validate those relationships, the loss of the moment haunts me. It seems impossible to let go of a moment I’ve fantasized about for 6 years. 

At YU I found community, academic success, fulfillment, and, finally, acceptance from my Hasidic family. Over my four years at YU, the bricks of my commencement citadel assembled. I slowly recognized that my hopes of a better life were no longer results of trauma-induced daydreams in my adolescent bedroom. Yet COVID-19 has me mourning a commencement that will never be. It has me mourning my grandmother who will never see it. 

While I mourn, epiphanies are beginning to knock on my grief-stricken doors. As I obsessively focus on the loss of commencement, on the supposed collapse of four formative years of hard work, I realize that my accomplishments stand without commencement. I realize that my grandmother did not need my tasseled hat, flowy gown, or sentimental photos. She desired the baton of her legacy to be handed to the successor of her unrequited dreams. Commencement or no commencement, my dreams and hers have been realized.

Commencement or no commencement, Yeshiva University’s graduating class has accomplished hundreds of dreams, banished hundreds of demons, and flourished in the most trying times. I know our loss seems insurmountable. We are entering adulthood in the heart of a pandemic and our accomplishments seem like fever-dreams. While it is vital to mourn, while it is necessary to go through grief to overcome it, one cannot ask themselves why me? forever. Each of us have spent the last three or four years constructing our futures. Let’s not allow COVID-19 to wreck our spirits. I know this is simpler said than done, but we are the generation that will raise the world from the ashes of the virus. Our future is uncertain and we won’t be celebrating our accomplishments together this May, but our triumphs do not need decorated graduation caps or a line of handshakes. We are the confirmations of our triumphs.