The hardest thing about life isn’t death itself. The hardest thing about life is living alongside death. Side by side we coexist, doing whatever we can to make peace. We work to find comfort and acceptance, which is always easier said than done.
I lost my grandmother a few years back during the pandemic in 2020. She was my best friend and confidant. My favorite thing about her was her sweet tooth! Never a dull moment when Betty was sneaking me jellybeans under the table at Christmas dinner while mom put soggy green beans on my plate (this went on without fail into my mid-twenties!!). The memories I have with her will stick with me for all eternity. When she passed, although I “expected it” to some degree due to her terminal lung cancer, it was an odd sensation for me. Although I had seen her pass, she simply wasn’t gone. To this day her energy remains with me. A good friend of mine described it as “functioning in life without a piece of you” like an arm or leg was taken and you had to learn how to adapt and cope with that loss but still keep moving. I thought this hit the nail on the head. When our loved ones walk the bridge to the other side, we may never be ok with it, we may never fully “move on” but we cope, we hold onto the living, and most importantly we cherish and honor their memory in the ways we know how.
I have experience working in the hospice care space alongside folks who are passing on as well as those who are grieving. I worked alongside the nurses, doctor’s and aids who are a part of this whole process. The process of letting go and trusting that loved ones are going to a better, safer, brighter place. The end of life process is very special and unique in itself. It is a delicate and key part of life for the person leaving this world and the people who love them. Recognizing the importance of allowing this process to happen is the start of coping. The definition of coping is essentially the ability of a person to deal effectively with something difficult. Yet grieving the loss of someone you have known, loved, spoken to, shared meals with or maybe recently became acquainted with brings an entire new meaning to the word cope. You are not only working through the difficulty that comes with facing loss itself, but also navigating the murky emotions surrounding acceptance of that loss. That’s where coping becomes complicated.
It starts with trying to make sense of what is happening or what is going to happen. There is only so much one can do to “prepare.” As I mentioned before, when my grandmother passed away, everyone told me to prepare and expect it because of her age and her cancer diagnosis. So, when she passed, I told myself “Ok, you knew this was going to happen so here we are, don’t be surprised.” Part of that may have worked because initially I wasn’t as overcome with emotion as I thought I would be. Yet, as time went on, when I didn’t hear from her, see her or visit with her, it started to feel different. Even though part of my brain made sense of what happened, there was still a large part of me that didn’t quite understand it. I would text her phone, call her just to hear her voicemail, I would have dreams about her. Eventually, enough time passed and I got to a point where the majority of my mind understood that I wouldn’t be seeing her anymore. That my friends, is what coping feels like. You start to wrap your mind
around the reality of what has happened, but parts of you feel like they might come back or reach out to you. Even today, years later, I still text her and sometimes cry. However, I understand the reality of what has happened and I have accepted it.
Acceptance is different from coping. Acceptance is moving through life without the constant “sad” reminder in everything we do. For example, I used to read the newspaper comics at my grandparents house everytime I would go over there. They would have the newspaper on the kitchen table and occasionally that’s where I would sit, happily and quietly just enjoying the silence and smells of my grandparents home. I loved it. The home was warm and quiet, yet full of life. My grandma Betty’s art hung from the walls, the grandfather clock would tick to the same tune at the top of the hour and my absolute favorite place to sit was on the large sectional couch in the the TV room where I propped my feet up on the coffee table while I read, pretending I was an adult reading the news. When I lost my grandma, I would see her in everything. In the silly comics, or in my parents home when I looked at my dad, even when I saw jellybeans at the grocery store. It would make me so sad because it was a reminder of what I no longer had. I would cry and beg to have her back. Yet, as time went on and healed my wounds, I would see the same things that reminded me of her but instead of sadness I would feel joy. I’ll smile at seeing old pictures of her or old messages she had sent me. I smile at the thought that I was
able to enjoy having a woman like her in my life. Someone who loved me unconditionally and who was my safe haven. This is acceptance, the space where we live and continue to move forward every day. We know what happened and we have coped, and now we accept what we cannot change.
Towards the end of her life, my family hired in home care for my grandmother. Unfortunately, my grandfather had to pass in the hospital and I was unable to see him in his last few moments. Yet I was lucky enough to be with Betty the same day she died. Hospice care was a huge part of finding peace with my grandma’s death. She was such a central part of our world that there were times it was too painful to watch her struggle and see her in distress. The hospice team that worked with my grandma became close to our family. We relied on them for information regarding her health and found comfort in them knowing they could help her more than we could when it came to medical and healthcare needs. My grandma’s home hospice nurse was lovely, her name was Ally. We invited her to family dinners and always praised her with so many thank yous as she guided us through the process. When the time came for Betty to leave us, Ally approached the situation with grace, patience and understanding. She knew what to expect.
With my grandpa it was different as I didn’t see his last moments. My grandma however, I was there at the very end. I am eternally grateful to the role that hospice care played in the passing of my grandma Betty. As a family, we were able to worry about spending time and giving love versus so much of the technical components that come with end of life. It can be a complicated process.
We were able to have my grandma at home for the end of her life. Others need their loved one to be placed in hospice care at a care home or facility. This could be for a number of reasons but sometimes it is the way it has to be and that is completely acceptable and understandable. Going from recognizing the end of life to the next step of hospice care can be incredibly daunting. Family members may have to choose a hospice care program which can feel permanent in the sense that they are agreeing to the loss of their loved one. It is a strange and emotional experience, but there are an incredible amount of resources to be had for making such an important decision.
Working in hospice care facilities allowed me to witness such resources at play. It is a beautiful coordinated effort that takes a village! I would observe the nurses work round the clock making sure folks were comfortable, had the appropriate medications (if necessary), and just took the time to check in assuring that people didn’t feel alone. I myself was a part of this process as part of my job included obtaining blood work for hospice folks in order for their doctors to keep a close eye on them. I met so many people! I remember walking into these special places and greeting people as they played games, watched movies, read books and spent time with their families. I felt I was contributing to the uniqueness that is the end of life. This made me feel like I was giving back to society and helping others just like Ally had helped my grandma at home. I was able to connect with the families and the staff alike. We were all in the same world, together.
I feel that I have a unique experience as someone that has felt the loss of loved ones as well as having worked directly with families and people in hospice. We live in a world that can feel incredibly isolating, so having someone or several people around you who understand these feelings is important and so valuable. My sister was a big part of my grief when it came to the loss of my grandma Betty. She is 4 years younger than me and had her own special bond with Betty. My sister is a gifted artist and we all feel that she got her gift from my grandma. I remember the two of them together when my sister was really young trying to watercolor. My grandma would give her pointers while my sister did her best not to blend every single color into one. My sister knew exactly how I felt, so we leaned on one another quite a bit. My mother had a particularly special connection to my grandma. Betty was like her second mom. My own mother still has her own mom who is alive but estranged from us. This would be the grandmother on my moms side. I don’t really have a relationship with her, my mom had a rough childhood and unfortunately didn’t have a great bond with her own mother growing up. When she was a young adult and met my father, Betty took my mom under her wing and treated her as her own. When Betty passed, my mother, who is always so strong and unwavering, took it very deeply and struggled to cope for some time. My father and my aunt (my grandmas kids), did their best to put on a brave face for me and my sister. They are always stoic and often don’t show when they are sad. Especially my dad. One of the first times I ever saw him cry was when we lost my grandfather. For his memorial, I sang an edited version of “Hallelujah” in which I changed some of the lyrics so they could apply to my grandfather and our family. My dad watched me sing and I saw him cry.
Having my family to rally around one another is essentially what gave me the strength to accept what was happening when both my grandparents died.
Having my family to rally around one another is essentially what gave me the strength to accept what was happening when both my grandparents died. However, although we went through the same thing, we each had different experiences. For example, my dad and aunt lost their parents, my mom lost her lifelong friends, and my sister and I lost our grandparents. We all definitely talked so much about the experiences we each went through. The same yet different. Even to this day, we have accepted it in different ways and initially, we had grieved in different ways. Each person is unique in how they handle loss. My sister didn’t shed a tear for maybe a year after Betty died. She confided in me and said she felt guilty and I told her that each of our responses to this experience would not be linear. Just because you don’t cry doesn’t mean you dont care enough, it simply means your emotional response to loss is different. The way you process and accept our grandma’s passing is your own and you should never feel bad about it. My response was entirely different. I cried a lot, and I cried hard. Sometimes I would speak out to her just checking to see if I might get a response. I know my mom loves to wear her old jewelry (an absolute staple of Betty’s personality), and my dad likes to tell us old stories about when he and my aunt were kids. These are the ways we grieved, and in some ways this is how we keep her memory alive, her and my grandpa Henry. The only thing I wish someone would’ve told me is this: there will be a void they leave behind and for a while it will feel like an ongoing emptiness that will ache. In a way, it is like I was bruised or wounded. Almost as if I tripped and fell, got bruises and had to wait for them to disappear. I was black and blue at first, but as the days went by it began to fade until I no longer felt the pain. In some ways, there were days I felt relief. Relief for my grandma and that she was no longer in any pain or distress. In complete honesty, I felt relief for myself and that neither I nor my family had to worry about her condition, if she was in pain or if she was comfortable. I definitely felt guilty at first, but then I understood that my grandma would want me to feel ok. She would want me to be at peace and trust that she was safe and it was alright to move forward with my life.
As I grow older, I continue to find closure. I know that sounds odd, like shouldn’t I have found it already? In many ways yes I have. I have felt my feelings, coped, accepted and moved forward. Hospice care was revolutionary in helping my family feel safe and cared for as my grandma walked across the bridge to a better place. I am always grateful and appreciative that each step of the way I had family who understood what I was working through. So when I say closure, I just mean I continue to recognize that Betty may not be coming back to Earth with her jellybeans and watercolor art, but she’ll always be with me and that thought is comforting. She’ll always be rooting for me, protecting me and wanting the best for me. In the wise words of grandma Betty, and even in the summer heat she would say “Be careful now! Keep going and don’t fall down in the snow!” I now know that she meant never give up in life and because of her,
I never will.