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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

The Other Side of Grief is a series about the life-changing power of loss. These powerful first-person stories explore the many reasons and ways we experience grief and navigate a new normal.

How much does it cost to die? Around $15,000.

At least when my grandma died — the woman who raised me — it cost that much for the funeral.

When I opened a credit card with a limit of $20,000 in the years after, it felt good knowing I could pay for a funeral at the drop of a hat. I was in control just in case. Because I’d learned with Grandma that “just in case” can happen between saying goodnight on Sunday and stopping by after work on Monday.

The hardest part of death is losing someone you love. But then you’re hit with a wave of costs, and not just for the funeral or reception.

Four years since Grandma’s death, I’ve paid most of my debts. But some are still accruing interest.

I’m sharing some of my costs — emotional and financial — in the hopes you can be prepared, since most of us will lose someone we love at least once.

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Grandma Freda and the author, Sara, at her fifth-grade graduation. Photo courtesy of Sara Giusti.

Biology 101 fees

Being the last one to see her but not knowing to say a proper goodbye is bittersweet. Being the first person to find her dead was horrible.

I’ll never forget the metallic clang of the gurney — of her gurney — when she died. They even included a pillow for her head. For the family, obviously.

When the coroners came for Grandma’s final joy ride, we used bedsheets to carry her downstairs. Despite the translucent yellow pallor of her face, the ungracious head bobs, the distinct feeling of dead body in the air, we did our best to be gentle, as if she were merely sleeping.

I tried to push that day from my mind in the years to come as I chain-smoked and drank to suppress my own unraveling biology.

Price tags at the coffin dealership

You’d think buying a casket would be easy. It’s not like it really matters, right? It’ll be six feet under no matter which way you slice it and only viewed for an hour or two, tops.

But it was like buying a car — and I don’t even drive. The salesman had his pitch ready, his thin veil of empathy covering a desperate need to upsell as my uncles and I surveyed coffins in a small gray room.

Some coffins were grandiose and deep mahogany, wonderful pieces I couldn’t help but think would make an excellent addition to a lakeside home. Others scaled back the glamour but still had a bit of punch to them.

And then there was the no-frills pine coffin. No gimmicks, no tricks. Just a pine box. Simple lines and light, warm-colored wood.

And a part of our Jewish tradition. Jewish law dictates the dead must return to the earth, and wood coffins like pine decompose in the ground. Win-win.

When pressured to decide to choose your loved one’s final bed, go with what you know. Keep it easy — and affordable.

The value of memory and the expense of mourning

The funeral was on Easter Sunday, which was also none other than 4/20. I knew Grandma must’ve liked that.

I got her marijuana for one of her birthdays to help her manage her severe arthritis, stuffing it into a bottle of women’s vitamins. One of just a handful of times we smoked, we got pretty high and I wrote on her Facebook wall, “Hi!” We cried laughing for a good 30 minutes.

What I would give to visit her again, to go home. When I close my eyes, I see it. I know every turn and which stairs creaked. I remember the smell of her perfume, of her fancy shampoos. We’d fall asleep watching “Forensic Files” and “Snapped” in her huge California king bed that had the most comfortable mattress.

What I would give to feel at home again, somewhere, anywhere, to tuck away the gnawing anxiety of being surprised by her dead body. I want to deduct these nightmares from my total bill.

What I, a kid without parents, would give — pay — to be in our home.

I know I was a good granddaughter and you were always so proud of me. I know it was time to go. But I miss you so much.

I wish you could see me now with a big-girl job in the city. That you could see my cute house, the support circle I’ve harvested, to know I quit smoking. We’d gossip and laugh all night.

Paying the price for leaving bar tabs open on Tuesdays

On the first anniversary of Grandma Freda’s death, I went to the best dive bar in my hometown. The drinks are cheap, smoking’s allowed, and no one judges if you’re drunk before 5 p.m.

There’s nothing like getting plastered on a death-iversary.

Nothing matters — not the open tab, the stench of Marlboros on your clothes, or the public, full-body sobs and incoherent rants. Nor the fact it’s only Tuesday and you’ll pay for this moment with an exceptional hangover.

I relished in the selfishness on the day of her death. I deserved this one day to grieve deeply, to be vulnerable.

Estate sale balance sheet: Make a buck, lose a relic

Watching strangers dig through Grandma’s belongings, both precious and not, was gut-wrenching. How do people choose what to buy straight up and barter?

You’d think her fine china would be snagged up like that. That someone would want her clothes — from Nordstrom, no less!

Instead, people hemmed and hawed over knickknacks and jewelry, rushed to snatch garden decor, and left dirty footprints on the white carpet. But I was also just as scattered.

What I saved continues to baffle me. I’m unable to throw out the dry lipsticks left in purses, a newspaper clipping I know Grandma kept to gossip about, stained shirts.

I still cringe that I almost sold a wooden step stool that’s been in the family for generations for a measly $3. I’ll never get rid of it. Hell, I’d pay hundreds of dollars to keep it.

Still, by the middle of the second day of the three-day sale, we practically begged people to take stuff away. We were emotionally spent.

Remembering Grandma’s death date with Freda cookies

For her second death-iversary, I decided I needed some sugar. So, I went to Grandma’s favorite deli and bought gourmet cookies.

I worked at a day care at the time. Naturally, a toddler spotted the cookies, asking what they were for — was it someone’s birthday? I wasn’t in the mood to explain how I was sad my grandma was dead, so I replied, “They’re special Grandma Freda cookies!”

Whether these 3-year-olds could sense my aching or if they were excited at the surprise of a sugary treat, all the kids began chanting, “Freda cookies! Freda cookies! We love Grandma Freda!”

I totally sobbed.

The worth of obituary life lessons

Writing an obituary is a more challenging task than you may think. How can an entire life be summed up in a meaningful, compact way? After all, it was nearly nine bucks to place the obit... per line.

I mentioned the big stuff: her dog, penchant for late-night chats, and tradition of hosting Thanksgivings. I had to end with the mantra she began to recite in her last years of life as she battled severe chronic pain: “Life isn’t for wussies.”

I do regret not getting that engraved on her headstone. Instead, it reads, “Beloved daughter, mother, and grandmother.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful headstone, regal and glittery. But why remember status? She’ll always be my grandmother.

I want to celebrate and mourn the holes that are left: her humor, fierceness, what she stood for.

Paying for total independence

I cried outside the AT&T store before walking in to cancel Grandma’s account. At 24, I’d be paying my own cell phone bill for the first time in my life.

I’d be able to budget it. But it surfaced the other costs of losing her.

I had to run away from my dad at 14. My mom is out of the picture. Grandma died when I was 24. I only had a safe home for 10 years.

Now, I’m not just responsible for all of my bills all the time. I’m responsible for every decision without guidance. It’s up to me to decide what I’m going to do for every holiday. Good news is texted to less people.

There’s intoxicating liberty in this, sure. No more fretting what any guardian will say. I can do whatever I want, all the time! No guilt!

But oh, how dearly I want to rant like other people about “having” to go home for a visit or declining parties since it’s Mother’s Day.

Saving with Costco wine deals for death-iversary picnics

I’d try to visit Grandma every week after I moved out, whether it was an entire weekend hangout or a pit stop on my way home. It was as much for her as for me.

So, naturally, I tried to keep up our visits after she died.

Just a week after her funeral, I took the train down to her cemetery, a burrito in my backpack. I was determined to have a picnic and enjoy her company.

It took a couple more years to get the appetite to picnic at her grave again. The next time I did, I brought some friends, sandwiches, and wine. Grandma did love her wine and a good lunch date.

We had a nice time, finishing the bottle of white and leaving the Pinot Noir for Grandma. Since then, it’s become tradition to leave an unopened bottle alongside flowers every month or so.

I’m trying to make sharing my stories about Grandma Freda and my grief a tradition, a ritual. There’s comfort in sharing our death debts together so we can all celebrate our loved one’s lives and heal.

Dealing with the cost of death may not get better, but it does get easier.

Want to read more stories from people navigating a new normal as they encounter unexpected, life-changing, and sometimes taboo moments of grief? Check out the full series here.


Sara Giusti is a writer and copy editor living in the San Francisco Bay Area.