There is this grand idea that when someone passes on, they “see the light.” That may be true, but what about the folks who have to watch from the other side?
When my Grandma Betty passed, it was the oddest sensation and contortion of reality I have faced to date. We were holding hands as she told me she thought I was beautiful, and then I watched her breaths become shallower, farther apart, and then quite literally just… stop. I was confused for a few moments, like I was watching and waiting for her to take one more breath. I honestly didn’t know what emotions I felt, but I knew it was heavy like a weighted blanket was put over my shoulders. People talk a great deal about the emotional side of grief and loss, but when it comes to the physical changes immediately following death, it doesn’t seem to be addressed in the same way. In truth, who wants to recount how their loved one looked on their last day and how it made them feel? Hey, I understand entirely. However, sometimes with grief, it’s important to process the reality of what happened so we believe it really did happen.
A few hours before she died, Betty was breathing abnormally in very deep but rapid patterns, otherwise known as Kussmaul respirations. She was wheezing a lot as her ability to swallow secretions began to fail. This is called a “death rattle.” Sounds dark, I know, but it simply means her muscles slowly stopped working, and she eventually lost control of her respiratory function entirely. She was unable to blink (her eyes were more so closed), felt cooler to the touch, and was lying in a relaxed fetal position. We covered her with multiple blankets and propped her head up to make her as comfortable as possible. When she took her last breath, my family and I gathered around her. My mom said a prayer, and we sent her off across that bridge to a better place.
I’ve always wondered what she saw at that moment. During death, it is common for people to have hallucinations or delusions as they leave our world. My grandma was definitely chatting about nonsense things as she passed, such as asking me how Christmas was going even though she died during the month of May. Although some things didn’t make sense, Betty was fairly coherent until her last few moments. I will never forget her last words to me. It was very special, a grandmother reminding her granddaughter that she was beautiful inside and out. She was thinking of me even in her final minutes, and I will be honored by that until the end of time.
The scene that followed was honestly right out of a movie. Luckily Ali, my grandma’s hospice care nurse, was there. She was responsible for calling the time of death and making arrangements for Betty’s body to be transported to the local funeral home. The strange part for me was seeing strangers place her body in a body bag. I remember thinking, “wow, we truly do live within shells.” I thought this way because I no longer felt associated with her body anymore as it was clear her soul had left. Her persona, inner beauty, and intelligence were inside her body, but now it was free. As I said, an odd sensation and a unique visual for sure. No one wants to see anyone they know and love inside a body bag for any reason, even after a peaceful death. Yet in another way, I was also calm because she wasn’t struggling at all anymore. There were no more responsibilities, labored breathing, or health issues. She was safe now.
There are real-time physical ways to prepare for all this, logistically speaking. You can pick a funeral home and set up service arrangements. Perhaps you might want to choose whether or not cremation is the right choice for your loved one. In the final days, it’s easier (and I use that word lightly) to focus on the tasks at hand rather than the emotional changes that are beginning to set in. Personally, I cling to real-time activities and tasks while grieving, such as cleaning or setting up appointments and managing affairs. I was only 16 when my grandpa passed away, so my energy went into writing a song for him. I was detailed and meticulous with my lyrics and which melody to choose, which helped me immensely while processing what had happened. I wanted him to be proud of me. However, when my grandma passed, I was in my adulthood and was able to join the conversation about what would happen when she passed away.
Emotionally, there is no version of preparation that can be considered a “one size fits all.” It will be different for everyone. There’s only so much “preparation” you can do. Personally, I talked to myself all the time about what the world might feel like without my grandma. We also sold her house pretty quickly afterward, and I didn’t have time to say goodbye because I live in a different state. I often found myself saving voicemails and framing pictures. I even put up her license plate on my wall. It was the little things that gave me peace because they reminded me of the joy she brought into my life. Being creative helped me through my grieving process, and I encourage others to lean into the little things as well!
As we can all imagine, death is not black and white. It’s complex, with many moving parts, including a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, we start by accepting death as imminent, hoping that this will help it hurt less. In the middle, we prepare as much as possible, make arrangements, and say our goodbyes. By the end, we know it’s coming, and we hold onto whatever makes us feel peaceful, as letting go is the hardest part. When it is all over, there are confusing moments of ups and downs because, in a weird way, we can feel relief and pain at the same time.
With no “How to” manual for life or death, we simply have to do our best, and our best is all we can do. Your best will look different in every situation, and no one knows for certain how they will process their loved one’s passing. When the time comes to say goodbye and shift from holding on to letting go, you can find strength in your grief. Make arrangements, talk to family and friends, utilize your resources, and help others if possible. I often find that by encouraging, guiding, or helping others, my energy pours into a more positive outlet, and I am able to heal. From beginning, middle, to end, we do our best to find peace and strength as we grieve and try to overcome the feelings of loss that weigh so heavily.
So friends, if you find yourself confused about the storyline and what is “supposed” to happen when the time comes for your loved one to cross that bridge, trust that there will always be support. There are systems in place to guide you during the aftermath of loss. We may not all know why someone leaves us when they do, but we know how to care for one another so we can live on in their memory.