After college… time passed and I got older. Part of getting older is that those we love age and die. One of my grandmothers passed after I married and had children – Mom’s Mom. We flew down for the services. More time passed. I was called and told that my other Gramma was in hospice and time was near. I flew to the East Coast. And for the first time experienced what it is like to sit vigil by a bedside. By this time, I had read many books and talked with many people about grief. I had experienced over a dozen unexpected deaths of relatives and friends. I knew what to expect. I thought.
I did not expect the moment to be beautiful.
For nearly two weeks, I sat by Gramma’s bedside reading to her, singing her hymns, telling her about my life and fearing the moment that she would leave her body. I slept in the weird chair that is there next to hospice beds more than once; even though I had a real bed at my cousin’s. I wanted someone to be there with her when she went. I was terrified she would die with just me there and I wouldn’t know what to do but more terrified that she would die alone. I refused to leave her side as much as I possibly could.
Sunday morning came around again. I got up and put on the “more appropriate” dress my Aunt had purchased for me at the Salvation Army, put on my makeup, and went to tell Gramma what I was wearing and how long I’d be gone. She breathed in when I finished what I was saying and never exhaled. No drama, no gasping or pain. Just a quiet inhale and she was done. Quiet, peaceful, and gracefully she was out of pain and gone.
In January, our friend died from a long-fought battle with cancer. When I told this story to our friend’s children that day I laughed a small laugh and said “Can you believe it? She was always bugging me about going to church. I get all dressed up for church and tell her about it and that’s when she chose to go. So, I wasn’t able to make it to church that week!” The children politely smiled. One day they will understand because their dad also had good timing. If he’d held on even half an hour longer, his children would have been out of the house at an activity rather than at his side at the crucial moment.
After Gramma died, I began to reflect on how much easier her death had been to deal with. It was around this time that I had been medically retired from teaching at the high school. I was dealing with that loss as well. And my family had moved in with my maternal Grampa so we were also facing some disruption to our normal family life, as well as some fears about his health. I was feeling overwhelmed by all of it.
My normal coping mechanism when upset is to learn things, bury myself in knowledge that helps me analyze what is going on inside me. That year I had moved my college classes online. I was very busy finding supplemental information that I could use for my online students. Over the years I taught online I included information from youtube, tumblr, pinterest, PBS, TedTalks, Prezi, the APA, psychology.org, and many, many others. It is amazing what is out there.
I learned more in discussions with my students than I did from all those sources. And, as I always do when I teach, I shared my stories as well.
On the discussion board, I required my students to post a quotation from the readings or supplemental information – in correct APA format! – then answer three things. First, describe a personal experience you or someone you know has had with this quotation. Second, compare your quotation to the other material we’ve learned in our class. Third, connect this quotation to some other media you have been exposed to outside of class: novel, movie, poetry, news story, textbook, video, research, et cetera. The final piece of the initial post was an open-ended question for the rest of the class to respond to. Then, they had to respond to at least three classmate’s questions. And yes, my rubric – available for them to peruse prior to doing the assignment – did score every single one of the items I’ve listed here.
I taught General Psychology, Lifespan Development, and Memory. Every single class used the exact same directions for their discussion boards. They talked about their experiences and brought in resources. I talked about my experiences and suggested information for them to check out. I loved it. I learned so much!!
As far as experiences with death and grief go, most of my students who had gone through both agreed that it was easier to be there and say good-bye than it was to have someone suddenly gone from their lives. This is, of course, counter-balanced against watching someone you love suffer for weeks, months or years before they are finally gone. I had more than enough of the too-sudden deaths to compare to my one experience with hospice. Then a second one occurred with Grampa.
When Grampa contracted pneumonia and the doctor (who came to the house!) told us that he wasn’t going to pull out of it, everyone got together and we started making phone calls. Plane tickets were bought and people headed up. I performed computer magic – located the cousin that no one had seen in years and we got him a ticket too. Most everyone made it in time. We celebrated his 92nd birthday with all but my estranged cousin, brother and one aunt at the table. They missed him by just hours. But before that we had slightly more than a week with him to talk and put things in order.
Those last few days were some of the best, and worst, I had with Grampa. Especially the last 24 hours. He was in and out of hallucinations that day so I got to be his brothers, wife, friend from the army… We went down a hill on the toboggan, danced on the bedroom rug, and had a silly conversation about nothing in particular. He told dirty jokes (nothing new there) and some war stories (some I hadn’t heard before). It hurt so much to watch this intelligent man lose track of reality. Yet, at the same time, it was as if he was taking me to visit some of the most important moments of his life. The treasured times he kept inside his head were being shared with me.
That last night I set up my camping cot in a corner of his room because I was afraid to leave him alone. It was the only day he’d been like that, and his breathing was also getting worse and worse. I was extremely apprehensive. In addition, he had been trying to get up all day, and was none too steady on his feet. We’d also had a few accidents, so I decided I needed to be in his room in case the sheets and clothes needed changing again.
Around 2am, I heard him struggling with his covers and got up to help him. I reached him just as he stood up. Caught and lowered him to my lap just as he started to fall. (Thank all the powers that be for the years of lifeguard training!!) We sat there on the floor for a time gently arguing. I kept reminding him that Cousin and Brother were still coming. (Aunt had just been up for a visit and wanted to remember him that way.) He had to hold on til they got here. I reminded him that he’d promised me to be the first to live to 100. (His mom made it to 98 – he had to beat her!) “Come on Grampa. Use that stubborn kickass pride of yours for just six more hours!!”
He looked up at me and smiled. He pointed to the corner of the room and softly said, “Mommy’s here. (That is how he always referred to Gramma.) I have to go.” He patted my hand, closed his eyes and was gone.
I don’t know what he saw. But it made him happy and that brought me an excruciating level of joy that is indescribable. I sat there holding him for a very long time.
There were a great many other things going on that week. Those are the topic for another post. In fact, I wrote those up on my Facebook page many years ago and will resurrect it at some point when I’m too tired, sick, and depressed to write. But today’s post is about the beauty of someone you love leaving the world when you have had the time to say good-bye.
My third experience was by far the hardest. My mom had brain cancer. For two years.
I deliberately chose not to go out to Mom’s bedside for her final moment. I had said everything the night before. Weeks of sitting beside her as she grew weaker and weaker had given me plenty of time with her. Two years of brain cancer had given us opportunity to talk everything out. I learned so much in those two years. My mom became my friend.
The night before I sat by her bedside and whispered all the messages in her ear that I had received via email, text, phone and letter telling her it was okay to let go. It was okay to stop fighting and everyone wanted her to be at peace. She knew she was loved and that all the people in her life were ready for her to move on. I felt her relax. I felt her body understand. I left that night knowing that it was the end and I was saying good-bye for the very last time.
Her last minutes belonged to her husband who had been an amazing support and comfort through all of the days from diagnosis to the end. I had my final moment with Mom. I didn’t want to be there while he said good-bye. He’s an intensely private man. He deserved his privacy with his beloved wife.
It was a relief when she died. By the end I’m not sure the morphine was even working anymore. She couldn’t speak and had little control over other body movements. Therefore, I was happy to have the memorial and share the joy that was her life. My mother was amazing and that was what I wanted others to remember. Not the pain of her last six months; but the laughter and strength of the 65 years before that.
This is four times now I have held vigil. Three times that I was present at the exact moment of death. Each one has been good and wonderful in its own way. The loss is tempered by knowing that they are out of pain.
I still grieve each one. I still grieve my dad and granddaddy too though. Those have been decades. We don’t forget or ”get over” grief. We find ways to cope and adapt around it. But the four I got to have time with are special. They are indescribable and poignant in a way the others are not. The sudden deaths hurt in a sharp, tearing way that I didn’t experience with these four. With these the gift of time to prepare, to say good-bye, to reconcile good and bad memories together made all the difference.
Pieces of my heart were broken by those, as loss does. Surviving those losses, grieving those losses, comes from experience. I gained tools by talking to others – be it friend, family, therapist, classmate, co-worker, student, or social media – reading another’s experiences or knowledge, writing about what I’ve experienced, watching movies, going to memorials and hearing stories, and following cultural rituals. I’ve found ways to mend those rips in my heart by taking what works for others and adapting the ideas to myself. These are things each of us do in our own way and time.
Just remember… death is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it can be profoundly beautiful.
p.s. It’s apparently a bad idea to light 92 candles then have all the great-grandkids stand on the other side of the table to blow them out when Grampa has an oxygen tank. Ooops. Thankfully, nothing terrible happened. Well, other than wax on the frosting. Nice pictures though, huh?