Grief is a wound like none I’ve ever experienced. It’s nothing like a breakup, there’s no I-deserve-betters and no bitter-betrayal-songs to patch up the wound. It’s nothing like an end of an era, there’s no new adventures to look forward to, no leaving the past behind in a beautiful mix of nostalgia & excitement. Grief takes the umph out of you, leaves you breathless & aching & deeply wounded. There’s no replacing the person you’ve lost, no hint of relief in their departure, no future sunnier days past the adjustment period.
It’s been 36 long days without my grandpa’s smiling face & honestly, I am still completely uninterested in a life without him. As this grief continues to rip though me, I’ve found moments of refuge as I find him everywhere I go. This weekend, we held his memorial service in a beautiful wooden chapel (I smiled as I imagined him admiring the craftsmanship) on the church campus he attended for two decades (another smile remembering his teary eyes at my baptism years before at this very church). While holding back the floodgates of grief, I shared the sentiments below to gathered family & friends. I hope these words shine a little light on the joy this world is missing without his ever-present laugh, & the depth of how this iceberg of a man affected the world around him.
Ernest Southall was a man of style and class, of adventurousness and determination, of consistency and character. He was reliable: hitting the greens every Tuesday with his golf buddies, and coffee every afternoon with his wife of 61 years. But Ernie was anything but boring: he was the kind of man who always ordered something new and daring off the menu and came dressed with an understated classiness I daily hope I inherit. He instinctively knew the best wine on the menu, yet in all his wisdom and knowledge he was never once condescending. He worked passionately and humbly, choosing joy each day of his life. He was the kind of Grandpa that introduced me to the delicious world of medium rare steaks and decadent chocolate desserts, yet worked daily with his hands making cabinets well into his 80s. Many of my fondest memories include running through his wood-shop, sawdust under my feet and his pencil drawings littering the work desk; or walking out of Macy’s to see where he had been sitting patiently while his girls shopped, a smile taking over his face and his arms opening wide to scoop me up.
My grandpa was both the strongest man in the world and hands down the funniest. Now I know what you’re thinking: this alleged superiority in strength and humor is probably a bit biased coming from his adoring granddaughter, & highly unlikely considering all the comedians & wrestlers in this world, but I can prove it by describing each of your first impressions of him to a tee: After being startled by the strongest handshake you had ever encountered, you found yourself doubled over in laughter by a well timed joke. Believe me, I watched this scene play out a thousand times, each of you immediately impressed by this man who basically toppled you over with his handshake and simultaneously disarmed your bad attitude with his silliness and joy. He carried himself in kindness and integrity and made every person feel immediately welcomed into his warm presence.
Anyone who knew Ernie was loved by Ernie. His love was contagious and bold, and I know this deep love for others came from his love for the Lord. Because whenever my grandpa talked of God, he would tear up. He would recount God’s faithfulness, assuring me that in every situation he encountered, the Lord was good to him. One of the things I miss the most are his prayers. My grandpa prayed with such conviction, such depth of reverence and joy, that they are utterly unparalleled. Pastors with booming voices pray in crowded auditoriums & I am relatively unfazed compared to my grandpa’s prayers around our dinner table. I loved his prayers because they always felt strikingly simple and genuine. He got right to the heart of the matter with boldness, because he was convinced God was near. Marked by humility and courage, they were never showy but they were strong, and I always felt the Lord met our family when my grandpa prayed.
The repeated sentiment I received when sharing the tragic news with friends echoed that he adopted them when their own grandparents were circumstantially distant. Ernie and Muriel adopted dozens of my friends over the years, in elementary school this was marked by a trip to Build-a-Bear, my friend and I walking out with two freshly stuffed animals in matching outfits, my smile extra wide because I knew I had the coolest grandparents around. In college it meant buying my recently engaged friends wedding presents, it didn’t take more than one mention of a ring and Grandma and Grandpa had to help out the soon-to-be newlyweds. He had the grandpa gig down perfectly: he was silly and loving with a leaning to spoil. Regardless of the season, Grandpa always made my friends feel cared for and thought of. And as an only child of an only child, I just got lucky I only had to share him with my friends.
My grandpa was always happy to see me or to talk to me. I was one of his girls, and anyone who knew Ernie knew how extravagantly and sincerely he adored his wife, his daughter, and his granddaughter. He never missed a moment to tell us how much he loved us and how great he saw us to be. The lies of this world always faded into white noise when my grandpa was there. His presence alone strengthened me, reminded me I was worthwhile, capable, cared for. He always assured me I was his favorite granddaughter, and when I sassily reminded him that well, duh I was his only, he always replied with a wink and a “you’d still be my favorite”
He called me weekly, just to say he loved me and to ask if “the boys were giving me any trouble.” He always teased that he would have a talking to with any guy that merely looked at me the wrong way, and I usually laughed him off and assured him all was fine. I understood how much he meant to protect me when a few years ago, I shared a current heartbreak with him, only to see him tear up and repeat that he wished he could do something or say something, offering to call the boy up if it would save me any pain. My grandpa hurt with me and he rejoiced with me. He had a compassion that was contagious and a propensity to protect.
He showed me unparalleled generosity, slipping a $20 in my hand with a sly smile each time he said goodbye to me after a coffee date or post-church meal. Not to mention when he surprised me on my 7th birthday with a personalized playhouse he built by hand, or the college account he established to help me pay for Biola. My grandparents’ generosity has shaped our family, where giving is the norm and no one is ever in need. The only thing we ever fight about is who’s paying the bill at Mimi’s this time ( hint: my grandpa ALWAYS won )
He encouraged my dreams, proudly displaying each piece of artwork I made over the years on the walls of his house, even if that artwork was made by nothing more than a nine year old with some wide eyes and a set of overpriced watercolors. He patiently played school with me every day after kindergarten. I would assign him and my grandma homework and cubbyholes, grading their work rigorously and making them redraw assignments or rewrite stories. I’m sure I was a very strict 6-year old educator, but he played along and allowed me to develop my dreams. I knew from that age I loved to play teacher with my grandpa, and I owe it to him that I am now in the midst of getting my Masters in Education.
When I returned from my trip to Europe last summer with a journal full of polaroid pictures, ticket stubs, musings and memories, my grandpa asked if he could borrow it. Not for an hour, but for a week. He said he wanted to soak it in, page by page. When he returned it, he gushed over how much he enjoyed it, treating it like a nobel prize winning piece of literature. He was the only person in the world who understood just how important that journal was to me, and he honored me in cherishing it the way he did. People had told me they enjoyed my writing before, but it wasn’t until my grandpa told me with fierce sincerity that I should write more did I seriously consider it.
My grandpa was my number one fan, beamingly proud of me regardless if I struck out every inning in softball in junior high. Even after a whole season of never making a hit, he still made it to every game, just to cheer on his lanky little freckled girl in the outfield.
It’s really hard to describe to people who didn’t know my relationship with my grandpa how difficult this time has been. They hear of a grandfather passing, and it conjures up memories of distant relatives that barely affected their daily lives. And I get that, but our family works a little differently, as my grandparents have always been considered a part of our immediate family. Ever since I can remember, its been the 5 of us: me, my parents, and my grandparents. New friends would look at me with shock and ask incredulously if I was lonely as an only child and I just didn’t get it, because who would want more? I’ve got a grandpa and dad to tease me and protect me and a mom and grandma to take me shopping and nurture me. I’ve got the best family in the world, and I’ve never wanted it differently. So to me, this hasn’t been a loss of a older relative I barely know, but a best friend, someone I would get sushi with and talk to weekly on the phone, the person that made me laugh more than anyone else on the planet. My grandpa was my favorite person in the world. Plenty of college essays and interview questions about who I considered my hero found the answer of my grandfather: for his bravery in immigrating from Canada, for his hard work in his cabinet business, for his constant joy in suffering health. Every important day of my life & every normal day of my life, he was there. He was a pillar of faithfulness and consistency in my ever shifting world. I said my first word, “star,” as he held me in his arms one warm night in Palm Springs, and he liked to refer to me as his lucky star because of that. Our birthdays were 4 days apart, June bugs as he termed it, and because the two of us were like two peas in a pod, this always made a lot of sense to me. It was like our souls were twins, just separated by a few decades. He’s irreplaceable and a grandpa like no other.
I can’t remember a single moment I ever doubted that my grandpa loved me: it was apparent in each and every minute I spent with him. He made me laugh, he held me tight, he never let me forget how proud he was. He forgave me, he taught me, and he believed in me. My grandpa’s love was a relentless kind, committed and unconditional. Each moment, he chose to love me just as I was: no amount of immaturity or emotionality could shake his love for me. In my darkest moments I think of my grandpa’s love for me and it reminds me of how the Lord sees me, because my grandpa’s love fought for me, uplifted me, and cherished me. The way my grandpa loved me is probably the closest I will ever come to how unabashedly the Lord loves me: the kind of love that’s undeserved and slightly unbelievable, but once I begin to accept it, its undeniably life-changing. I miss you more each day Grandpa, thank you for loving me so well.