One year ago today, my grandpa died. During Grandpa's last ten days of life, I spent many hours at my grandparents' house, where Gramps died in a borrowed hospital bed at age 86. Up to now, Grandpa has been the closest person to me to have died. Other than knowing I'd be sad upon his death, I hadn’t known how the experience would affect my emotions and my life. These seven points represent the main lessons I learned through my experience of Grandpa's death:
- The funeral marks the permanent end to casserole delivery. I've read that our society also expects the funeral to signify the end of mourning. Instead, to me, the end of the funeral was really the beginning of my personal time of mourning. For about six weeks following Grandpa's death, the act of feeding my family and myself was difficult. I couldn’t decide what groceries to buy or what meals to serve, and I didn't have much motivation for doing the work. Grief definitely doesn't have a time table.
- Eighty-six years of life can seem like both a flash of time and a very long life. So can my lifetime in the context of those 86 years. Yes, I’m lucky to have shared life with my grandpa for about 40 years. The fact that his 86-year-old body was worn out does not make me miss him less and doesn't make my grief any lighter. The fact that Gramps was my daughters' great-grandfather doesn't make it easier for my girls to let go.
- The feeling of relief following a loved one's laborious death can quickly dissipate and be flooded with sorrow. That relief, as only a tiny trickle of the loved one's time on earth, is not worth mentioning. As stale as "I'm sorry for your loss" might sound, it's preferable to "at least his suffering is over."
- Hospice workers can give a feeling of naturalness and partnership to the experience of dying. My grandpa had home hospice care: Hospice nurses and volunteers visited his house periodically through the week and guided family members along the way. The hospice staff helped us understand what to expect and know what to do, and a staff person was always available by phone. Our local hospice workers provided a great deal of comfort to my family and me.
- Telling the story of my experience witnessing Grandpa's death is something I want to do (so please ask me) because the experience is greatly important to me and because death is natural and real. Death is a part of everyone's life, and talking about death can help all of us heal.
- Anticipatory grief does not lessen grief upon death. My grandpa had been declining for several years, and during that time I had already been mourning the loss of the Gramps I had loved throughout my life. Grandpa's death was not a surprise; the first clues appeared three or four months prior to his death. I was as "ready" as I could be to say goodbye. None of this made his death easy to accept or abide, and my grief was more intense than I had expected.
- A loved one's death can be a meaningful experience—not scary or creepy. Watching how hard my grandpa struggled to breathe, how hard his tired heart must have been working those final days and hours helped me see a parallel between death and birth. The work of dying can last longer than the work of giving birth, but both seem, to me, equally miraculous. Noticing the amazing ways a body functions … and then suddenly doesn't … sparks a sense of wonder in my soul. When I went back home to my husband and daughters after Gramps died, I felt their love and sometimes found myself in awe of their bodies' efficient performances.
Overall, given my experience, I don't claim to speak about all death, especially not tragic death. And I acknowledge that there's an extra layer of intense sorrow when a loved one dies young or unexpectedly. What I do know is that every death and every grief feels different, and that individuals express and cope with grief differently. That said, I believe that by listening to one another's experiences, we can learn and understand and, ultimately, recognize a bit of ourselves in each other.