Former Western New England University President Dr. Anthony Caprio stands in his office with Payton North and her grandfather John Paton on a visit to the campus in 2017.
Photo credit: Payton North

Not to gloat, but so far, 2024 has been the best year of my life.

I have experienced so many work-related accomplishments.

Business West 40 under Forty.

Western New England’s Young Alumni Outstanding Achievement Award.

Association of Community Publishers Rising Star Award, and an ACP second-place award for an opinion piece I wrote.

I have also been experiencing great happiness in my personal life between relationships, time spent with family and my volunteer work.

But as I write this on what would’ve been my grandfather’s 82nd birthday, and is also the nine-month anniversary of his passing, I am having a hard time reconciling that this year follows what was the most difficult year of my life, and how I can be so happy when my best friend isn’t here to share all of this with me.

There are more eloquent ways to say it — but why bother: grief is weird.

When I was a senior in college at WNE, I invited my grandfather to campus. He graduated from Western New England College in 1966 and was so proud to have his granddaughter go to his alma mater.

On a warm spring day in April 2017, I took him around the campus. I talked with him about the buildings, showed him where I had classes and, primarily, discussed what the school looked and felt like when he was a student there.

When he began his tenure at WNE, the school was in the Springfield YMCA. It wasn’t until 1959 that the first building was completed on the university’s present campus — that first building being Emerson Hall, where I had many of my own classes.

My grandfather completed his schooling while working full-time, and as most folks were in those days, he was a young parent to my mom and uncle. Despite many obligations, he still got into plenty of (fun) trouble at the school, and while he did not have what we would consider a typical college experience of today, he thoroughly enjoyed his time at WNE.

As he and I walked around campus, I received a phone call from Professor Brenda Garton-Sjoberg asking if we were up to extend our tour a bit. (Grandpa was a longtime fan of Brenda’s from her TV days. He was thrilled to meet her, especially knowing what high esteem I hold Brenda in.) She surprised us both with a meeting with then-WNE President Dr. Anthony Caprio in his office. Dr. Caprio showed us old photos, talked about the history of the school with us and asked my grandfather questions.

How many university presidents stop their day on a whim to have a visit with an alum and his granddaughter?
It was such a special day we shared.

At the Alumni Awards event on June 10, recipients went up to the top of the campus center to chat and take photos. I couldn’t help but reflect and think about Grandpa — how proud he would be that I was standing on top of a building on his campus, accepting an award. How I wished he could be there, despite knowing that he was — even if it was in the form of the refreshing breeze blowing as the sun shone on the special day.

I am lucky to be surrounded by people who entertain my stories of Grandpa and don’t find it weird — or at least, don’t say they do — that I continue to talk about him on a regular basis. People who acknowledge the fact that this loss will be something I’ll likely always feel, despite time making things easier. I did have someone question me, saying, “How long are you going to be talking about this?” My response was, “Probably forever.”

At the time, it had only been about a month since his passing — so the comment had a particular sting.

I am sure so many readers have experienced immense loss that they struggle to figure out how to grieve. How long are you supposed to grieve? When does it get better? When is it considered “too much” to keep talking — or in my case — writing about it? When is enough enough?

Many people I have spoken with agree that when you love someone dearly and you have lost them, you never truly stop grieving. Your grief may come about in other ways, and less frequently as time passes, but it will always exist as a low hum in your being as you move forward.

I saw a quote on Instagram that does not have a source, but I think about it often: “Nothing has shaped my life like grief has. So, when people say, ‘When will you get over it,’ my answer is ‘I hope never.’ Nothing has helped shape my life around living, and who and what matters most to me, more than the reality of how short it all is. And how much I want to be me, while there’s still time.”

I have such an appreciation for everyone and everything these days — that’s the biggest lesson grief has taught me, and likely why I have had such a great year. I have said yes to nearly every offer at a visit or an experience with the people I care about, because life is for living. I have become that annoying person who forces everyone to take a photo on every occasion to document the memory, no matter how silly or strange it may seem, just because. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lifted my phone for a picture of my family at the dinner table or taken candid shots of friends as we hang out or do activities together. Memory making with the people I love has always been my number one priority, but has now become my saving grace.

Maybe one day I’ll stop writing about this.

But I doubt it.

I’ll probably write about it forever.