What it's like to grieve a family member you've never met
I quickly learned to hate filling out family trees in grade school. I distinctly remember being a kindergartner and wincing because I could fill out my mother’s side with ease—Grandma here, Aunt there—but when it came to my father’s half, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know my father, paternal grandfather, or paternal grandmother. But instead of fixating on the unknown during those assignments, I occupied my mind with the artistic aspect of the project. It was my way of coping with my feelings, namely the embarrassment I felt as everyone else easily plugged in their family’s names with chunky, childish handwriting.
That wasn’t the first, nor the last, time I would be at odds with my own identity.
Two months ago, I looked up my father, only to see if he was still incarcerated. I was surprised to discover that he shared a first name with his father, and then was fully taken aback when I discovered that my grandfather had passed away in 2016. I read the obituary, and saw that my name had been included in the list of survivors—even though we had only met when I was still a baby. It’s baffling to think that someone who doesn’t know where you are or at all about your life can still hold space for you in their heart.
My father has been in prison for the majority of my life. I actually didn’t know who he was until the summer before I started high school, and even then, he was still in prison and unable to communicate freely with me. We spoke, via letter and phone, for months. It was difficult to catch up—he was years behind on the world’s happenings and I had more questions than I allowed myself to ask. When he was released after nearly two decades, my mother was uncomfortable with us meeting on his terms (which made sense given the nature of the crime he had committed). So we went our separate ways.
Then, one day, we came across each other at a mall in my hometown. There he was, taking portraits of families, while his own roamed the shopping center. When he saw me and my mom, he recognized us immediately. He started shouting my mother’s name and following us. I instantly knew who he was too, but those were not the circumstances I wanted to see him under, so we quickly left. I did not see him again until I googled his name on Father’s Day in 2015 and learned that he was back in prison. His mugshot was in my face on the day dedicated to honoring him.
It’s difficult to piece together your identity when you feel like you don’t have the answers that would make you whole. It’s too easy to tap into that jealousy that I summoned as a small child filling in family trees, when I thought I didn’t know enough about the people who contributed to my existence. I am more than grateful for my mother’s family, and also for the friends I have chosen to walk with through life. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking that maybe I’ve let a special connection slip through my fingers. If only I had been courageous and strong enough to speak with my father in the mall, or if I had pushed harder for a relationship, I think to myself, maybe, just maybe, things would be different. Maybe I would have had a healthier view of relationships and marriage earlier in my life. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt stuck when I had to fill out a family tree for my daughter’s baby book.
I wonder if my grandfather was a good man, if he wanted to see me take my first steps and grow into the person I’m destined to be. I also know why my mother and I operate how we do—my father was not the man we needed him to be, and the hurt he caused didn’t evaporate. Yes, his jail time made our lives tougher, but he wasn’t especially present to begin with. It pains my mother as well; she didn’t get to bond with my dad and his family either. She was robbed of her joy, and I feel for her.
This grieving process is nontraditional—I’ve only seen one photo of my grandfather. I don’t know what his voice sounded like. I don’t have memories to wrap myself in. That doesn’t stop me from knowing that he was a person my being is bound to. I am indebted to him.
My grandfather believed in love with boundaries (hence him not badgering my mom, but expressing love for us in the end), and I do too. The best option for me is to move forward and show my loved ones that I care. I will be emotionally vulnerable, show my daughter that she can depend on me, and be empathetic. I can’t say that I’ll reconnect with my father or his family. But I know that I’ll always revere them. I don’t need to go out of my way to hurt them with my words, I don’t need to disrespect them. At the core of everything, we’re all just people with emotions who made decisions. Yes, we all have the same thick noses, thin brows, and knowing glances. We’re interconnected spirits, and one of us has found their way home.
I’m blessed to have another ancestor looking out for me, even if we weren’t as close as we could’ve been.