**Possible trigger warning: I am going to include details about my Grandma’s death that some readers may find disconcerting.**
My Grandma first became ill in 2008, a few months before I gave birth to my third child. She eventually recovered from that particular health issue, only to face breast cancer. While she was alive during this time, I did not see her much. I found her to be different from the woman I had known my whole life and somehow managed to convince myself that either she was already dead or would someday miraculously return to her vibrant, no-nonsense self. I don’t recommend either of these coping techniques, though they did keep me somewhat sane for a long time. I was able to see her on occasion without thinking about what was really happening or what I might be missing out on. To be fair to myself, I had a lot going on in my own life over those years, including having a miscarriage, another kid, a year dealing with the mental fallout after having said kid, and all the ins/outs of having a busy life….though I also admit this is a paltry excuse.
A few months ago, I was forced to deal with the reality that she was indeed alive and dying. There were a host of emotions that came along with that, guilt for not being more involved over the past several years, missing the woman she was, fear of losing my aunt as well, and guilt. Did I mention guilt? A LOT of guilt.
I did my best to do what I could with what seemed like the little time we had left. I helped where I could, which was precious little compared to her primary caregivers: my aunt, her husband, my cousin. The most I could do was take on the role I take best, doula, and support them in their endeavors. Truly, this proved much harder because I was also facing my own emotions at the same time. I tried to set them aside to be supportive of those doing the hard work. Was I successful? Who knows.
In my loftier, enlightened moments, it felt sacred to bear witness to this event. My internal struggle with guilt sometimes left me drained, but when I let go of that and was able to just be, it felt more like the honor it was. At other times, it felt horrid and cruel to watch this amazingly strong woman wither away. I felt privileged to have some lucid moments with her, moments where we could talk like we used to and she maintained the same eloquence I’d always loved about her. Throughout my life, I always felt like Grandma understood me, even when she probably didn’t. This was a remarkable quality about her, one I have yet to master.
me: “Grandma, how did you do it? How did you manage to not lose your mind when your kids were younger?”
Grandma: “You just do it. You do what you can, with the information you have at the time.”
As the end seemed nearer, it got harder to pretend like I wasn’t feeling sad. I chastised myself for feeling sad, as it seemed selfish when she was so obviously suffering! It also felt selfish because I wasted precious time with my false reality and my aunt was suffering right alongside her with both her own feelings as well as exhaustion/illness from the role of primary caregiver.
One of the last times I visited, there were tears a plenty. I simply walked in and saw my aunt laying with Grandma, then lost it. We spent a lot of time that day just holding hands, something so seemingly small or trivial and yet so deeply intimate.
These last visits, I started to be able to see beyond my own sadness to the privilege of what was happening. We were being granted time to say things that needed to be said, hear things that needed to be heard and to walk with her as she approached death.
A few hours before she died, I went to her house. I couldn’t sleep, so I texted my aunt to ask if it was okay for me to come. I told my husband how silly I felt going because there didn’t seem to really be a reason, I just wanted to be there. I couldn’t explain it. My aunt prepared me for what I might see and the plan was for me to sit with Grandma so she could get some sleep. Instead, we gathered around Grandma and held her while she died. In some ways, it was incredibly enigmatic, an experience I will never forget. It was also slightly horrifying because it’s not something we see very often. The parallels to birth are overwhelming (someday I want to write about that). Often, my aunt and I remarked how easy it was to see the similarity in dying/death to laboring/birth. We cried, we laughed, we checked to make sure she was actually dead multiple times, we regarded with horror the fluids her body expelled, we wondered what to do next. When the fluids had finally exited her body, we decided to clean her up and dress her. We acknowledged that she, her soul, her essence, her whatever-you-want-to-call-it, was gone and that this was simply her body. Logic may have told us that, but it still felt important to honor this body. We wiped her down with warm cloths, then followed up with scented oil. After that, we picked out the outfit she looked beautiful in, that she liked, and laid her as if she were sleeping. To me, it was a final act of love, of treating her body with the same dignity and reverence as she had always treated us.
In the afternoon, I posted this to my Facebook page:
At 2:40 this morning, my Grandma and Donna’s mother, died. This woman embodied honest and unconditional support. We are lucky to have grown up with such love….love that didn’t need to be expressed by words because it was, and is, so deeply felt. I have yet to meet a person who thought she was anything less than amazing. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that this magnificent woman & the gifts she gave us live on through us. I would not be who I am without her influence, which was mighty and flows in me. Her single dip ice cream cones were the stuff of legend.
She died at home, being held by her daughter & best friend Sis, Henry, devoted & loving grandson Jesse and myself. Just as there is beauty found in opening to the sweet surrender of birth, so too is beauty found in opening to the sweet surrender of death. It was an honor and a privilege Grandma, one that I will treasure always. Thank you. For all that you were and so very much more.
Over the course of the next few weeks, it became my task to write up something to say at the Celebration of Life my aunt was planning. Here is what I wrote:
I’ve been trying to write something about Grandma since before she died. I wanted to write some poignant, eloquent piece about the gifts she imparted, who she was to me and how very thankful I am to have known her. Here and there, a beautiful little blip would float through, but nothing like what I wanted~nothing that was capturing the thoughts, expressing the emotions. Over and over, the dominating thought has been love. I have to write about love.
I hadn’t given much thought to love and Grandma together until Sis and I were talking once in Grandma’s room. I think it was a week or two before she died, but I can’t remember exactly. Sis mentioned that, to her memory, Grandma had never said “I love you”. This became a profound moment for me, for my understanding of Grandma and our relationship, and then, for my understanding of my own self. I thought about this revelation. Was it right? Had I heard those words from Grandma’s mouth? Surely I had! The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that Sis was indeed right (as usual). And yet, I have always felt so deeply and truly loved by her. How was this possible?
What I came to realize was that everything she did, everything she said and everything she was conveyed love. It conveyed acceptance, support and understanding, often with minimal words. Now, this not to say that she *approved* of everything I did all the time. In fact, she was one of the few people who put me in my place as a teenager. Somehow, though, she managed to convey that she thought I was being stupid, yet respected that it was my right as a human to do stupid things, and she would love me in spite of said stupidity ~ such as running into her gate as an act of rebellion against my mother or stealing a tube of lipstick from her friend’s store.
She was fierce and brave and wise. She was honest. She made amazing ice cream cones. She was my Grandma and she will be missed.