Transitioning from childhood to adulthood loss

My journey of understanding death as a child up until present day.

The Unconventional Social Worker
Growing Grief
Published in
9 min readJun 2, 2021


My Maternal Grandma

As a child, my first experience of dealing with death, dying and bereavement was through the loss of my maternal grandma. I was about 10 or 11 years old at the time. My grandma was an immigrant and the only words she knew in English were things like “hello”, “bye”, “yes” and “no”. I could conversationally speak her mother tongue but I cannot recall any real conversation I ever had with her.

My grandma was a sweet woman based on my distant memories of her never complaining. My memories of her are mostly of her sitting silently at the dining table all the time and passively spending time around the rest of the family. Most memorably, she would often quietly take a seat, a spot or two away from me on the couch, where we happily watched my favorite cartoons after school together on TV.

My grandma was a frail, little lady that seemed to be able to take more pain (physically and mentally) than you could imagine. She would not complain about her pain. Not a peep. My memories of her became increasingly shaped by my mother’s own memories of her as well. It’s amazing how when you don’t know someone well, you begin developing a preconception and opinion of them from putting together the bits and pieces of information collected from others in addition to yourself. My mom always had nothing but good things to say about her, which is why all my memories of her were positive, full of respect and longing to have known my grandma more.

While the days leading to her funeral were immensely somber, I did not drown in tears or sadness as I had saw in movies. In fact, on the day we stood before her — taking our final glimpses of her face before the burial…I remember feeling like I was pretending to be a lot sadder than I really felt.

Barely 11 years old at the time, I wondered…

What was wrong with me?

My Paternal Grandfather

The loss of my paternal grandfather was quite a different one. I had immigrated with my parents since I was 3 years old and the passing of my grandfather became the reason for my first trip back to our home country. He and my paternal grandmother had flown over to visit us in our new home once when I was about 5 years old but the only recollection I have of that is primarily formed from our family photo albums.

I did not know my grandfather at all as a result. It was an absolutely devastating time for my father. I felt the agony from the indirect grief of seeing my father and his siblings go through such a heart-aching loss. We flew back for his funeral and I tried my best to pay my respects and put myself into the shoes of someone who lost their grandparent but it felt like I was just trying too hard for something, again, I didn’t quite understand.

This time I was 17 years old. While I was arguably more mature by this time, I felt an immense sense of comfort seeing my cousins (one younger than me by 2 months and another by 3 years) also struggling to take the funeral customs and traditions with complete seriousness.

Maybe it wasn’t just me after all — or is it possible that this heartlessness runs in the family?!

My Maternal Grandpa

At this point, I was thinking “been there, done that”. This will be no different. My cold soul felt like it was going to become frosted with ice (like when you have left a popsicle in the freezer for waaay too long). Unlike my maternal grandma, I got to know my maternal grandpa a bit more. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean we had a stronger bond or that I liked him any more. Let’s just say, my connection with him was not the best.

To make things worse, I was also an ungrateful little sh*t growing up. My grandpa had a big belly, so big, that as a kid I always thought he looked pregnant! This impression of him strangely captures the tone of how I viewed him in an oddly accurate way. When I was 9 years old (and my maternal grandma was still around), my grandpa was tasked (not sure by who or just himself) to walk me to and from school. As the ungrateful little brat that I was, I was very annoyed and told him I was old enough to walk alone. Reflecting back on my childhood, I think this behavior actually stemmed from a sense of embarrassment that other people would see me with my grandpa and judge how he looked. KIDS ARE MEAN. But so was I. Respecting my annoying and bratty demands, my grandpa decided to walk with me from a distance, about several feet back, just enough to see me but not close enough for us to look like we knew each other. But who am I kidding? Thinking back now, anyone would have seen right through this awkward walking arrangement!

Other random recollections of my grandpa include him vacuuming the pillows on the couch, him putting up his feet on the coffee table beside my face (I would sit on the ground using the coffee table to do work and draw), his sneaky little closed-eye laugh every time he saw me annoyed, him asking me to trim his strangely long ear hair…But my most fond memories of him are related to the food he cooked. He would make these delicious little chewy transparent jello cubes using ice cube trays. There was also frequently the warm smell of piping hot soupy comfort food that he would cook up for me and my uncle for lunch.

As I watched him age, I began to see his tummy grow smaller while his hunchback grow larger. It was almost like an inverted curve transitioning from the front to the back. I would never have predicted or imagined how small his frame would shrink compared to the big round-bellied man he used to be. As I watched him age before my eyes, the less mad and annoyed at him I became.

The day my grandpa passed was the toughest for my aunt, who was a single middle-aged woman. Her only companions were my grandparents. With both of them gone, it meant she was now alone. It was tough, really tough, for her. But over time, I saw her slowly let out a huge sigh of relief — relief of no longer having to carry the burden and pain that came with caring for aging parents. She carried on with her life. She continued contributing to local non-profits. She shifted her focus towards building friendships at work and in the community. One step at a time, she worked towards improving herself.

My grandpa had passed in a long-term care home. I was around 20 years old around that time but for some reason, I have managed to erase the funeral from my memory.

So, I am cold, what else is new?

My Paternal Grandmother

My paternal grandmother arguably lived the longest and “healthiest” life of them all. I was about 26 years old by that time and had gone through many more life experiences that broadened and deepened my understanding of the things that happen in life. Unlike my 11-, 17- and 20-year old self, I better understood death, grief, love and family.

Losing my paternal grandmother was similar to re-living the passing of my paternal grandfather combined with that of my maternal grandpa. Losing the last parent also hit harder for my father and his siblings this time around. It was a deep realization that their parents were no longer around at all. All the family gatherings that resulted from spending time with mom and dad would no longer be “mandatory”.

Like my relationship with paternal grandfather, I didn’t know my paternal grandmother well but the night of her passing will be engrained into my memories. The sound of the telephone ringing at 3am broke the silence in the house. I could tell something was wrong based on the sound of my dad’s voice down the hall. Shortly after, my sobbing mom came to break the news and grab me to join them in their bedroom. My grandmother was in the hospital with my aunt in our home country. She could no longer make it. I did not even hear her voice or breathing through the phone. We all wailed for her “grandma — mom — can you hear me, it’s me”…not only did I hear our three voices echo through the room but also the voices of my father’s siblings and their families through the phone.

I still tear up a little every time I re-visit this memory in my mind. It was the most tragic loss I had experienced yet. I did not know my grandmother well but through experiencing my father and mother’s cries, I understood the pain and depth of losing a parent.

Perhaps it was because I never experienced this exact moment with the passing of my other grandparents that made it so difficult for me to grasp those feelings.

I thought this would finally be the last time I would ever experience the loss of a grandparent again.

My Partner’s Grandfather

After my paternal grandmother’s death, I thought this had to be the end. I had no grandparents left to lose. It was mathematically impossible. Until my late 20s, my partner messaged me one morning, saying his maternal grandfather was not going to make it. His grandfather was younger than my grandparents when I had lost them. However, he suffered from dementia, barely remembering any of his family members while living his final years in a long-term care home. I may have debatably felt “closer” to my partner’s grandparents, but in a different kind of way, a more mature, homely and warm kind of way. They had a larger family, stronger bonds and spent more time together as a unit. It was the kind of family I heard about from others and wished for while growing up.

The image of my partner’s grandmother was the first thought I had when I received his message. My partner’s poor grandmother would always be on the brink of tears, trying to hold in sobs, each time the topic of grandpa was brought up. The thought of her crying, her feelings of loneliness, loss and love, put a lump in my throat as I tried to hold back my own tears. For what reason did I need to hold back my tears though? Was it because of the guilt eating at me for not shedding immediate tears when receiving news of my own grandparents’ deaths?

I decided to give myself a reason to cry. I quickly Youtubed Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”, which was uncannily relatable to how I felt. It was also a music video that pulled my heartstrings and triggered the waterworks everytime.

This time I was mourning for the loss of a love, the end of a companionship, the conclusion of a life chapter. I felt his grandmother’s pain pierce through my heart. It hit me hard. It felt like all four of my grandparents’ deaths became a stone wall that unexpectedly slammed right into my face. My mind slowly jogged through and re-lived all the memories of my grandparents…bringing me to write this story.

As I tried to process these emotions and thoughts, confusion began to snowball in my mind.

I felt guilty. Guilty for not properly mourning for my own grandparents or spending more time getting to know them and their story. Guilty I didn’t do more for grieving family members.

I felt ashamed. Ashamed for not treating my grandparents better.

I felt scared. Scared that I would once again have to experience this kind of pain one day, and another day, and another day.

I felt lost. Lost for the first time with a number of foreign emotions to an event that I thought I was no stranger to. And lost as to what the meaning of life was.

But I also felt relieved…Relieved that I wasn’t a heartless robot after all. I was just a regular developing child/teenager/young adult that was working through understanding the meaning of death, dying and loss.

If you read every word until here, thank you so much for taking the time to hear my story.

If I could go back and speak to my childhood self, I would tell myself that “What you are feeling and doing is fine. Sometimes you might not feel anything, and that is okay. There is no need to fake feelings. Awareness, reflection, respect and empathy are just as valid. Society and media sometimes set expectations for how we should experience loss. In reality, there is no truly right or wrong way to respond, react, think or feel.”



The Unconventional Social Worker
Growing Grief

Personal snippets on family, friendships, society and life learnings.