My Grandma passed away tonight. She had lived a full life of 91 years, but these last few months had not been good to her. Complications from a condition, which caused pressure on her brain and ultimately kidney failure would lead her to take her last breath at 5:50p.m. this evening. I’ve been fortunate, if death can ever be “fortunate,” in the fact that I haven’t had to face a lot of it in my lifetime. A small family and a limited number of funerals, which came later in my life, has made death somewhat of a stranger to me. A stranger that I have come to struggle with time and again.
My first real bout with death came as a teenager when my Uncle Jack died. He wound up in the hospital suddenly, and me being a naive teenager avoided visiting the hospital. On one hand I was telling myself he would be ok, on the other, I was afraid of what I’d see. That the image of him in a hospital bed would be permanently burned into my mind as my only lasting memory of him. He would ultimately pass away in the hospital and I never got the opportunity to say goodbye. He was the closest thing I ever had to a grandfather and more than just family, he was always a friend. Whenever we were together we were inseparable, and the fact I never told him goodbye haunted me until a year or so ago when I finally made peace with it.
That first experience with death made me fear it. I got away with not having the painful memory of my Uncle Jack on his death bed, but I now lived with the haunting regret of never really saying goodbye. Was this what every death was going to be like?
My next major bout with death came when my Grandma Norma, or “Granny,” as most people called her, died. This time I was an adult, married, with kids, and I knew I had to face it. I visited her a few times during her final days and was fortunate enough to see her one last time just hours before she passed. The memory still lives with me, but I suppose that’s natural when you’re watching someone you love slowly fade away and give into death, but it’s not burned into my mind the way I pictured it would when my Uncle Jack died. Perhaps that’s because I knew she had accepted death, that she had already accepted that she lived a full life and more or less welcomed it, or perhaps it’s because my fear as a teenager was simply nothing more than the irrational fear of an adolescent.
When I got the news tonight that my Grandma Helen had passed I was sitting on the toilet. My wife told me through the door after receiving a text from my parents. Not because she doesn’t have tact, but because she knew that after she had asked if I had received a text from my parents that I would likely worry. At first I ignored it, tried to tell myself I heard her wrong. I went numb. When I came out of the bathroom I said some things completely incomprehensible to my wife as a way to try and make sense of it and then began to cry.
I had told myself that this time I was ready for death. Though her quick decline was just over the last few months, I had spent the last two years constantly facing the idea that each passing Christmas, birthday, etc. might be her last. I was ready for it. I had made my peace and said my goodbyes as soon as her mental health had reached the point where she could no longer hold a conversation with me. I was ready to face death head on this time, and accept it for what it was.
It was one of the hardest battles I have faced thus far, not because I was particularly close to my Grandma, or because the death was a hard one to watch, but because it brought with it so many memories of those who had passed before her and left me second guessing the way I was handling her death. I didn’t completely remove myself from the picture like with my Uncle Jack, but I also hadn’t been there by her side to necessarily say my goodbye’s as she was dying like with my Grandma Norma. I had made my peace and said my goodbye’s in my own way a few months prior and had opted not to watch her slowly die.
The whole time I worried that other family members would judge me, that my dad would be disappointed in me, and of course part of me worried that I might come to regret it the way aI did with my choice regarding my Uncle Jack. My entire grieving process has been tied to being afraid I was handling death wrong, or that my feelings about death were wrong.
What I learned is that there is no right way to deal with death and that no matter what you tell yourself you’re never ready for death. When you brace yourself, the blow might not hurt as much, but it still hits you. We all have to handle death in our own ways. I know that now, but it still doesn’t make it any easier.