Just before Christmas I lost my final grandparent. And from it, I’ve realized that my grandparents have given me the gift of understanding death and grieving.
My dad’s mother, Marilyn, was the grandparent I was closest to, yet the death I understood the least. She died when I was in my early 20’s and living in Madison. When I’d heard she was in the hospital and dying I came home to see her, very unprepared. In the hospital she was connected to a breathing tube and I remember thinking she looked like a fish gasping for air. She would make eye contact and I would look away, not wanting to recognize her. I missed my opportunity to say goodbye to her because I was scared and it’s one of the few regrets I still live with in life.
A few years later my mom’s father, Joe, died. This death was the one that taught me death can sometimes be a relief, even when you don’t want that person to be gone. We had mentally lost him to Alzheimer’s and my family and grandmother were doing their best to care for him, even as he was becoming more violent and more confused. His death was much more spiritual- with the family, and some non-believers, witnessing the spirits of my elders coming to get him in his final moments. The family did an Irish funeral after the services, drinking and telling stories, showing you can mourn and celebrate a life. When I mourned his death I realized I was also mourning my late grandmother’s death, which I had pushed down in either denial or inexperience in mourning.
Three years ago I experienced my dad’s father’s death, Roger. I felt like I had the opportunity to do the most “right” things with his death in flying home from Boston the second I learned he was in the hospital and might have had a stroke. My husband was back in SF celebrating his company’s IPO (unaware what was happening), so I scooped up my only child at the time and headed to Madison. I still remember my mother ushering me over to his side when he woke up and asking him if he’d seen who came to visit him from Boston. He looked over, saw my face, and said my name; he knew I was there. I talked to him for a short bit before he lost consciousness. It’s a memory I’ll forever carry with me.
The thing I realized most in his death is you can continue to live without wanting to live. The family couldn’t reach an agreement on letting him go, so he lived for a while longer while connected to life support. However, I received the most beautiful of gifts during this time of getting closure on my late grandmother’s death. My two year old son was getting visits from “Grandpa in the Hospital” and “Grandma from the Hospital”. Through pictures we were able to learn “Grandma from the Hospital” was my late grandmother, Marilyn. HR was having live conversations with them and telling me things he never would have been able to know (like what I used to call them or that they had a toy closet with no trains only tractors). They followed us home to Boston and later to Japan. I was in Japan for work with my husband and son when I learned my grandfather had finally passed. My mother gave me the play by play of his final, special moments. I was stuck in Japan with only a $5,000/person option to get us to WI for the funeral, which pained me tremendously. I didn’t have to tell my son “Grandpa in the hospital” was gone as he told me that evening they weren’t going to visit him anymore since they were going “to the other side”, having no idea what that meant. It helped me realize that while I was angry at myself for not saying goodbye to my grandmother, she wasn’t.
A few weeks ago I lost my final grandparent, my mom’s mother, Mary. Her death taught me you can choose to die. My grandmother had outlived my late grandfather and her second husband. The family had decided months before that she was unsafe to drive and her final shred of independence, living by herself, was starting to wane. She had an aneurism in her stomach that was operable, but she was done. She was very clear on her wishes and spent her final days on pain meds and surrounded by family saying their final goodbyes. She argued with my mom about my mom cutting short her trip in Boston, seeing us, and told her to stay put. In the end, she still waited until my mom’s trip was over and my Aunt Karen was able to come back to WI. That evening she left the earth on her terms, which was the most appropriate way for her.
My parents are now orphans and, while grieving their own losses, have done their best throughout this to teach us kids about life, death, and grieving, One day we’ll be forced to use this newfound “skill set” to say goodbye to them and prepare our own children. Hopefully not for a very long time, though.