Commentary: Life in the time of grief and the kindness of strangers

A few months ago, my grandmother passed away. It was a slow, agonizing end, one of those things that began with a trip to the hospital and became progressively worse as the months wore on. In some ways, she knew that once she went in, she would not be coming out. In some ways, we did too.

She was the strongest woman I knew, having raised four kids after her husband's early death, a grandfather whom I knew not from photos in family albums, but by a grand portrait that my uncle had painted which hung on one of the walls of his house.

She was the last surviving grandparent, the one who saw her grandchildren grow up, get married and have children of their own, the one who loved spending her evenings watching "Dancing With the Stars," even though she could only speak a few words of English, the one who canvassed every yarn store to find the most exquisite wool for the amazing scarves, sweaters and vests she would knit for herself and us.

I think about her almost every day, operating on the guise that I will come home one afternoon and she'll be sitting in our kitchen ready to ask me about my unconventional life roving from one place to the next in search of what feels like a foolish, underpaid and underappreciated pursuit of journalism in search of the ultimate great story.

And even if I'm not feeling particular confident or optimistic about this insane, polarizing but wonderfully fulfilling profession, I will assure her that I'm OK, that work is fine and plentiful, and life is good. And she will nod her head and lovingly rub my arm and smile, both of us knowing in some capacity that I'm fibbing.

I did not cry when she passed away. I barely cried at the funeral. I thought about Albert Camus' "The Stranger," a novel in which the main character shows no emotions of grief upon learning about his mother's death.

I found that life went on, whether I wanted it to or not. Days turned into weeks, time moved forward and soon I was packing, catching planes to other countries, meeting friends I hadn't seen for years and attempting to chase the next great story.

But one night, I found myself high above the city, in the home of a perfect stranger who plucked me off the sidewalk, insisted I come over to her house and fed me cookies, watermelon, coffee and chocolate mints in between generous shots of vodka.

We sat in the oldest remaining historical district of Yerevan, and spoke freely and generously about life, work and everything in between. She had briefly lived in Los Angeles, but returned happily back to a country most are trying to find their way out of.

Finding decent work was impossible. She missed her kids and felt completely alone. The people here are warm, she said, smiling. Over there, cold. I nodded and admitted that despite being one amazing city, L.A. had a particularly special way of inspiring loneliness.

I stood in the doorway of her bedroom and watched her sing beautiful songs while playing on a Soviet-era piano she had had for over 40 years. Sweat dripped down my back just as a cool breeze came through her balcony. I felt the vodka kicking in. I swayed with her as she sang and warmly looked into my eyes.

It was in that small space that I felt, for the first time in so many months, the familiar warmth and comfort my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, had managed to provide for so long. She called me by my name, and asked that I come by again.

When I told her I was a journalist she said — to my surprise — that she'd love to be interviewed and smiled. I hugged her and she lovingly rubbed my arm. I thanked her and left and promised to visit again.

Grief is strange and life, even stranger. That raw, infinitely kind and genuine interaction with a complete stranger became the reason I finally allowed myself to cry after holding back for so long.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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