Here is how I experienced my grandpa’s last week of life and the first days after his death:
On Monday, staff at his New Jersey retirement home called him an ambulance. He was admitted to the hospital that afternoon. On Tuesday night, I booked a red-eye, and flew to Newark. I cabbed it straight from the airport to the hospital, where I settled in for the terrible waiting. When he drew his final breaths late Friday night, I was at his side. On Sunday, we buried him. I stayed with my mom for several days as she sat shiva, the traditional Jewish weeklong mourning period.
I missed six days of work—unplanned! When I returned to my day-to-day life, I realized something amazing: I had had no compunction about peacing-out of my professional life for an entire week. I had no concerns that my colleagues, (who pitched in to cover my cases), would judge me as uncommitted or unreliable. I wasted no energy on these kinds of thoughts. Instead, I was fully present with my grandpa for his last days. And when he died, I mourned.
I owe this privilege to a couple of factors: One, I am lucky to work in a large governmental office, so I am more professionally fungible than most. Two, I never faced the terrifying prospect of losing my job because I took time to care for a family member . . . and that, I have learned, is a privilege not afforded many American workers.
Why was I able to truly be present with my grandpa, but when my 18-month-old had pneumonia, I felt stressed and guilty about missing work to care for him? When I leave work early to take my boys for their annual check-ups, why the self-censure? Why do I slink into the office after attending a school play? I am embarrassed to admit that I once hired a complete stranger off of care.com to baby-sit due to the inadvisable “trial—travelling husband—sick toddler” trifecta.
Why did I feel okay taking the time to be a daughter and a granddaughter, but I almost never feel justified taking the time to be a mother during the holy hours of 8-5? The time with my grandpa at the end of his life was very special. Participating in his funeral was incredibly meaningful and mourning with my family was essential. So, too, is building happy memories with my children and participating in their lives with my whole being.
Rebecca Zipp is a deputy district attorney and mother of two who has spotted wild black bears during day hikes in six different states.