In the last 5 years I have dealt with 3 deaths in my immediate family. My mom passed away from Cancer, it’ll be 5 years ago this August. My husband’s grandmother passed away last summer. And my grandfather passed away at the end of January. I have witnessed terminal illness, old age, and sudden passing and I have been thinking a lot about them lately.
There is always some debate, between people and especially internally, as to which is better – to go slowly, to know it is coming, or to simply be gone.
My mother received her terminal diagnosis in the spring. A few years earlier she’d been diagnosed with a form of skin cancer; she had a tumor growing behind her eye. She had an operation and the tumor shrunk and became benign and she went into remission. Until, a few years later, the cancer showed up in her liver. It was aggressive. It was a secondary sight. They didn’t think operating would help in the long run. So they did chemo for nearly a year, three different types. We battled the exhaustion and the low blood count and the nausea and the hair loss. By the time my daughter was born the tumor was so large and so inflamed by the chemo that she was in almost constant pain. When my daughter would try to bounce, as little children do, my mother would hand her back because sure enough she’d put a little foot on the sore spot. She wore a fancy hat to walk my sister down the aisle at her wedding because she’d cut her hair short a few months earlier. My sister got married after the terminal diagnosis. Over the summer her health deteriorated at an alarming rate. By mid-August she was gone.
The fight against the Cancer was hard on all of us. We were all exhausted. I had a child with Colic and a toddler and I had to keep them quiet all the time so she could sleep (we were living at home to help care for her). But her passing was peaceful.
The public health nurse spent the night. She went in to check on my mother around 5 am and she was sleeping peacefully, though her breathing was laboured. My father came down around 6:30 to get ready for work, and she was already gone.
When battling a terminal illness, especially one that caused so much pain, your sorrow is mixed with a sense of relief. Yes, you miss them, no, it’s not fair, but they are finally pain free, they are finally Cancer free, they are finally at peace and you can’t help but feel relieved.
My husband’s grandmother passed away peacefully with her family around her on a Sunday afternoon this past July. She was in her 90s. She’d had a stroke, and while she bounced back and was able to talk and feed herself again she never fully recovered. She didn’t walk anymore. She lived in a care home. We watched as her mobility and energy levels decreased, as her ability to talk slipped away again. The care home called the family and told us they thought she had a week, maybe two, left. We were all able to visit her, to say good-bye. She would smile and nod but had no more words for us.
Marie was very old. Her husband had been gone 14 years. All her children were grown. All her grandchildren were grown. About half of her numerous grandchildren were married. She had 19 great grand children, the youngest of whom was born the day she died. We were sad, and while there was no sense of relieve here, there was a sense of acceptance. She was old, she was tired, she was ready to let go. She was strong in her faith so if there is a heaven, or if the afterlife is simply whatever you believed it to be on Earth, then she is happy and reunited with her husband and her siblings.
My grandfather went out one morning and fell and hit his head. It was January, and here that means snow and ice. I thought he had slipped, my grandmother is sure he had a second stroke. He had mobility issues and used a walker for balance ever since the first stroke. Unlike my mother and my husband’s grandmother we had no warning. One day he was fine, though his health was slowly failing. We thought we had a year or two with him at least. Then he fell, and we all held out hope that he would wake up and could spend a few months in a care home. Then it was shortened to maybe two weeks, maybe only a week. Then I went to visit him in the hospital and I knew. He was breathing the same way my mom was those last few days and I knew. So I said good-bye. He died very early the next morning.
There was intense sorrow at his passing. I wanted to say that it wasn’t fair but death is never fair. My husband put what I was feeling into words. “His death felt cheap.” How does the saying go? Warriors don’t die falling down the stairs? Of course, at first, we thought it was a fall, that he had slipped, that an icy patch in the wrong place had stolen him from us. Knowing it was more likely a second stroke – well, sudden passings are painful in a unique way but we knew his health was failing and we knew he was at risk for a second stroke. Still, more than with my mother, more than with Marie, if felt as if my grandfather was stolen from us.
So what is harder? I don’t know. I know the fighting that comes with potentially terminal disease is hard, perhaps the hardest. But the death? Letting go of my mother was surprisingly easy though I still grieve and I still miss her. Letting go of Marie was easy as well, perhaps because she was more my husband’s family than mine, perhaps because her life was fully lived, I don’t know. But walking out of that hospital room, knowing beyond a doubt that it was the last time I would see him, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I could have stayed there for hours, days even, if I thought my presence could change things. I could have stayed anyways, and just sat and remembered for hours until he passed. Or perhaps it’s just that this pain is still the newest, that it hasn’t had time to fade into acceptance the way it has with my mother and Marie.
Why do we talk about such things? Because when I loved one passes we begin to think about our own inevitable end. My other grandparents still have a foster child. What happens if something happens suddenly to one or both of them? Where does this child go? What do they feel about life support? What about my dad? He’s had a heart attack already, and though he’s still young, too young to dwell on dying, the thought comes to mind. What would I do without both my parents? What about me? My husband? What if I get sick? Cancer seems rampant in my family in many forms. What if my husband has an accident at work? What if we’re in a car accident? We have two young children. And so we talk about these things. Do I want to be on life support? Who will watch the children? For a few weeks anyway we talk about dying and then death becomes a distant figment once again and we live each day thinking we have hundreds more ahead of us.
It is important to talk about such things. I think culturally we have pushed death out of sight for too long. Having my mother home at the end was an experience I will never forget and am eternally grateful for. My grandparents came over, and my aunt. We sat and visited and mourned together. The gentleman at the funeral home gave us a few hours before coming to collect my mother’s body for cremation. It was like having a wake. But with tea instead of beer. I took my children to all three funerals. Death is not something we can ignore, nor is it something we should fear.
For those who follow my blog who are writers, death is something we think about all the time. When and how is it appropriate to feature death in our stories. Sometimes our characters must die. What is the impact we want to create with that death? What emotions do we want to evoke in the surviving characters, and in our readers? We struggle to find deaths that are emotionally fitting for our stories. Perhaps this will help you plan a piece of your story, because those deaths are the only ones you truly have control over.
Our own deaths are a mystery. And what legacy we will leave behind, what we will be remember for, in a way, that is a mystery as well but at least we can strive to shape that into something positive while we are still alive.