What I’ve Learned About Death

When it comes to death, most days I’m obsessed.

Well, maybe obsessed isn’t the right word.
Maybe I’m – consciously intrigued?

Whatever you want to call it, death is something I think about daily.
And not only when I’m depressed.

Death is something that pops into my mind in the shower, imaging that scene in The Grudge, when Sarah Michelle Geller feels the extra hands in her hair.

Or when I imagine running into a burning building to save someone spontaneously.

Or when I’m home alone and wonder “if a kidnapper were to break in, how would it all play out. Would I go with them willingly? Would I fight?”

Or when I’m watching Dateline, or CSI, or Law & Order, or Dexter, and every other show about murder and death – because I just can’t help but feel drawn to the subject.

I guess it’s mostly the psychology I’m most fascinated by.

The mind of killer.
The human response to fear.
The intense investigation.
The drive behind it all.

The ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Headline’ type of death or surviival.

But that isn’t always reality.

Some people die because of long term illness and because of age – the less “glamourous” or heroic type of death.

Yet, we rarely talk about that kind of death.
We tend to avoid it.
We get uncomfortable.

And when a person dies after a long health battle, we don’t know what to say other than: “I’m sorry for your loss” and “my condolences”.

My perspective on death recently changed when I watched my 89 year old Grandmother die right in front of me.

My Grandma had been battling various health concerns as well as Alzheimer’s for the past 10 years and we had been losing her progressively over that time.

I watched her forget who I was. I watched her forget how to write. And in the end, I watched her forget how to walk and eat.

And in the past few months, after being in the hospital and then transferred  into palliative care at home, we all knew, after all this time, the end was very near.

My mom and I were headed home from work when my grandpa called us to tell us things weren’t good. We stayed the night at their home, expecting her to go while we slept, but as the sun rose, we could still hear her loud breathing.

While sitting at my grandpa’s kitchen table on the morning of October 20th, looking through photos, I finally asked him – what do you think happens when you die?

The 89 year old man before me, who had been a member of the United Church for most of his life, responded: “You may be surprised to hear this. And I’ve thought about it a lot. But. Before we are conceived, we are nothing, and in our death, I believe we return to the same place, nowhere”.

I was shocked, yet okay and at peace with his answer.

This is a man I trust and respect more than anyone in this world. This is a man who’s heart is larger than life, and who has spent his whole life reading, volunteering, studying, and supporting his family. Frankly, I think he’s brilliant. And therefore, his words spoke deeply to me.

My grandfather then went to his computer and printed off a document he had written called “religious thoughts” and handed it to me. He told me that he had been thinking long and hard about religion and death and that after all this time, after his battles, he had mostly settled on this one belief – death is final.

You see, for years my grandfather has been writing down his history and memories on paper to be able to pass down to me – the family writer. And I was beyond intrigued to know his every thought.

After 75 years of knowing my grandmother, 68 years of marriage, and over 10 years of being her primary caregiver through sickness, even in the end, my Grandfather had come to peace with the idea that his beloved wife had lived and provided and loved and served and cared and contributed and done all that she was meant to do in this life, and that was enough.

It was more than okay if she didn’t end up in a pearly white and gold castle in the clouds – right there beside Jesus Christ.

Her death would not be a terrible and tragic thing. It would be sad. It would hurt. But it would be peaceful and final. And that was ok – so it was also okay to talk about it.

I read his notes and found clarity in his words, as well as a phrase he says has stuck with him since he began questioning God over the last decade: “God did not create man, man created God”.

Hours passed as I thought about the papers.

I focused in on the ticking on the clock in the kitchen, trying to drown out the sound of my aunt trying to comfort my grandmother through her growing discomfort and heavy breathing.

I had long prepared for this day – but the anxiety was creeping up on me:

I was going to see a person I love die today.

My mom asked me if I was okay being there, and I explained that when my friend Kyle passed, it didn’t feel real because I had seen him perfectly okay in the days prior to his death, and then suddenly, the next time I saw him was in a casket – cold and not looking like himself.

Because I didn’t have “proof” in my mind that Kyle had passed, I hadn’t been able to cope. I wasn’t able to accept he was gone or that the boy in the casket was him. That it wasn’t all some sick joke.

I battled with that for a long time.

So, when it came to my family, and having to face my first loss of a grandparent, I felt the overwhelming need to be there.

Hours passed.

My grandpa sat in the chair beside her.
My mother sat on the bed and held her hand.
Marley, the dog, paced and barked sporadically, not understanding why so many people had gathered in the room.

The nurse arrived:

“I really thought she was going to go a few days ago”

“I can’t tell if any modelling is happening – she’s still quite warm”

“Her pulse is up and down. But it gets quite fast – she’s trying to work hard to keep going”

“Ash and grey skin is a sign we’re near the end, caused by no fluid in the bottom of the extremities, the organs will go first, the heart last, ”

At this point, my Grandmother hadn’t eaten in five days, her body was shutting down – but she was holding on.

Not everyone goes peacefully in the night like The Notebook.

She had gone from talking a few months ago, to not being able to form complete sentences, to babbling, to starring, to simply just breathing.

And then came the glossed over eyes and “death rattle” – a loud breathing pattern that mimicked a dehumidifier or kettle.

To surround her with love, we pulled out the family photo albums, talked about her childhood, and cuddled each other on the couch.

My grandpa stepped out of the room for a brief second to make a call as we laughed at a chubby picture of my older brother as a baby, and just like that, the rattle stopped.

We looked up, rushed to her side, and she was gone.

It hit me in the face. The stillness of her.

For so long she had held on.

And then she was gone – but where?

How does a human person disappear from inside themself?

I touched her cold hand, kissed her forehead, and brushed her hair behind her ear, even though I knew she was no longer there.

It was confusing. But it felt right and okay to touch her.

I watched as the funeral home came to take her way and it broke my heart that her body, although no longer hers, was being taken by strangers.

I worried she was lonely or scared. Even though that didn’t make sense.

I’ve been battling these thoughts since she left us that day.
And I assume I will continue to contemplate them, much like my Grandfather – for the rest of my life.

However, what I do feel I have come to know is that death should be talked about. Death should not be taboo. Death should also not be so deeply feared.

Religious or not, when it comes to death, sometimes we believe whatever we need to in order to get by.

And that’s why I’m perfectly fine with my irrational thought that my grandmother keeps knocking my string of Halloween ghosts off of the mantle to play a joke on me.

Even though it may just be that the dollar store tape cant bare the weight.

I love you Dorothy Peggy Jean Curtis.

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