It was a sunny May day outside as I sat holding my grandmother’s hand. She had been unresponsive for a few days at the nursing home and now her breathing had changed. I came to visit and was the only one there. It was actually welcomed alone time seeing as to how most of the time other family was around during visits. I brought a book to read and after reading it, I sat there telling her stories and talking about what my daughter, her great granddaughter, Marybella had done that day. As her breathing intensified and pauses between breaths became longer, I was not scared, in fact a calmness seemed to surround me. One of the last things I talked about was her legacy, her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. I kissed her faced, massaged her feet, and I left the nursing home. Within 10 minutes I received a phone call that she had passed. It was an experience that I will never forget.
For anyone who has been in the room when someone is dying, there is no doubt that God is there. Those loud, deep breaths seem like a portal to the afterlife. As a friend recounted to me about her own grandmother who could write up until the day she passed. On the day of her death they could tell she wanted to say something so they took her a piece of paper and pen. On it she wrote, “They are here.”
This was my second grandmother to pass, my other grandmother whom I was much closer to, I was not there when she died. But because we were so close it was my first experience with intense grieving. Unable to sleep and then finally when sleep would come, constantly waking up in the middle of the night thinking about her. She was the first person I lost that held such a significant place in my heart. I remember then thinking, “I don’t want anyone to ever have to feel this way.” And having the realization that the older I grew, this intense grieving would happen again and again and again.
Some time passed after losing my grandmothers and one night over dinner my husband and I just started talking about death – what we thought happened when it was ‘lights out’, how did we think it would feel, and how important proper planning is too. Instead of shying away from the taboo subject we invited death to our dinner table.
I remember these conversations continued from time to time. They sparked deeply spiritual thoughts about the afterlife, religion, and the metaphysical world. What was interesting was the more we talked about it, the less scary it became, and somehow we began to see the beauty in what is also ugly, permanent, and sad. What else was interesting was that since we had spent most of our life not talking about this subject, it was almost as if a part of our brain had been awakened and was being highly stimulated by this topic. Sometimes we could talk for hours about death.
Last year when we lost a parent, my stepfather, unexpectedly, we faced a whole new type of grief. The grief of losing a parent and the heartache of watching my mother grieve such a tragic loss. The whole dynamics of our family changed and we began to face our own mortality.
Soon after that loss, my husband’s father was diagnosed with 4th stage lung cancer. I remember he came over and as we sat at the dinner table, he spoke very eloquently saying, “I have no regrets, I have lived a full life, and have a great legacy of children and grandchildren.” Even though it was tearful, it was also such a beautiful, realistic outlook on what he was about to go through.
It was at that time that my husband and I made a decision on death. We realized death was not going away. It was here to stay and it certainly wasn’t going to get any easier to deal with. We had a choice – we could ignore it, avoid it, pretend it wasn’t in our house or we could invite death to dinner and let it pull up a chair and be part of our lives. After all besides birth it is the other most important thing that will happen to us all.
American culture typically looks at death as scary, taboo, it is a word some people do not even like to say out loud. But what if we embraced it and accepted it as a part of life? Will it make grieving any easier? No, but it just might bring more solace to the mind, it just might become less scary and less mysterious. Having thought-provoking conversations about death will not only spark spiritual exploration, but may also bring about a preparedness that makes a chaotic, difficult time more calm and easy.
So death is a regular guest in our house often involved in our dinner conversations, and not in a morbid way. We ask each other questions like, “How would you like to die?” “Who do you want around you?” “What is truly important to you to accomplish before you die?” “What’s the first step to getting a living will?” “Is it possible to just be buried in a beautiful handmade wood box as opposed to today’s typical casket?” We also bring up death by sharing stories and memories of those whom we have lost. Whatever questions about death you may have or moments of grieving you need to share, it’s a conversation worth having and one that needs to be started.