By the age of 32, I had lost aunts, uncles, grandparents, both of my parents and a sibling. I have learned that each death is different, that the process of saying goodbye and letting go is different each time. And that no matter how much you think you are prepared, that phone call is still a punch to the gut.
My first real lesson in death was in junior high, when my grandpa (or as we called him, Poppie) passed away. I remember getting taken out of class and walked down to the office. As I was walking into the office, I saw my mom and brother walking into a room and knew something was wrong. My mom’s hands were shaking as she grabbed my face and told me Poppie was gone. I don’t remember much in the days that followed. But I clearly remember leaning in to kiss him goodbye and losing it because his cheek wasn’t warm, soft and covered with stubble anymore.
That moment taught me that when someone passes, they are no longer that body lying in the casket. They are the memories, the feelings and the smells that linger with you. Poppie’s death was also my first introduction into how people grieve differently. In my family, you grieved in silence. You didn’t get to ask questions or have someone hold you while you cried.
I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my parents. It took years for me to accept them for who they were. That while they were not the parents I wanted or needed, they loved me in the way they knew how. My relationship with my mother started to fall apart as I entered high school. As the years went on, the distance grew. In my eyes, she became a different person. I distanced myself emotionally and physically, saying goodbye in my own way.
I saw her health declining each year. I saw how she was putting on weight, how many times she needed to stop when walking up the stairs. I knew her risk factors and was expecting the phone call anytime. I can still hear my sister’s screams on the phone when she called to tell me. I remember the absolute dread in my heart as I called my grandma to tell her she lost a child. I remember the awkward feeling of not knowing how to deal with my siblings or my father, as we grew up in a family where you never had difficult conversations or cried. I remember asking my grandma for Ativan, to numb some of the feelings.
My mother’s death taught me about the downward guilt spiral one can go down – should I have done more to bridge the distance? Did she know that while our relationship was in pieces, that I still had love for her in my heart? I had to learn to come to terms with it all and find peace. And I learned how tension can build in families after a death. My siblings and I had never discussed certain issues, and I was not grieving in the way they were, which added to the tension.
Losing my grandma was something I always feared. She was home, safety, love and security wrapped up in a feisty, small woman that I adored. I nearly lost her after my mom passed. I remember asking a friend to do a stroke assessment on her during the calling hours, as I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, we had a few more years with her. I still remember the day when my aunt asked me to look at something in grandma’s mouth. As my eyes spotted the black spot, my stomach twisted as I somehow knew I was looking at metastatic cancer. I believe in my heart my grandma knew and didn’t tell anyone. She had been telling us for years she was ready to go.
Nothing can prepare you for the moment in life when you are sitting by a loved one’s hospital bed, counting their breaths and thinking each one is the last one. When it was just us, I prayed and begged my grandma to let go and pass on, as I could not tolerate watching her lay in that hospital bed. I clearly remember her pastor walking in the door, and my grandma’s eyes opening up and her voice coming back strong as ever to share a few more words with him.
My grandma’s death taught me the power of faith. While I miss her every single day, her lessons in faith allowed me to have peace with her death; knowing it was what she wanted after living a beautiful and full life. Her death also taught me that you keep the feelings of home, safety, love and security in your heart after a person passes.
My father and I never had much of a relationship. Like my mother, I knew his health risk factors and expected the phone call. During his last hospitalization, I think everyone knew it was the end of the road, including him. At one point, he leaned in and asked me if he could ask a question before he died. The room was full of people, he was having trouble breathing, and I was scared that my answer to whatever question he had would be painful to everyone present. I told him of course, but that we needed to focus on getting him feeling a little better. In that moment, I was a coward. He never remembered to ask me his question.
Because of my hospice training, I was able to provide guidance to my family on my father’s care during his final days. I was able to get him a few good days so that his friends and family could say goodbye, leaving them with positive memories. He passed peacefully. I was able to handle my siblings grieving easier this time, as I was more comfortable with who I was, and we’d been in this position together before.
His death taught me compassion and empathy for being on the other side during hospice care. It reminded me that while we never had much of relationship, I still wanted him to have a good death. It showed me that hospice is so much more than the patient, it’s helping their loved ones through the process as well.
My brother and I had a relationship that was up and down over the years. Because of our upbringing, we did not know how to have difficult conversations with one another. Misunderstandings and poor communication created distance at times. A few years before his death, he was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease after an ICU stay and being on a ventilator.
Like my mother, my brother struggled with mental health issues and not taking care of himself. When I got the phone call years later that he was in the Cleveland Clinic, I was out of the country. I took one look at him in the ICU and knew he was not going to make it. He was 39, but his lungs were that of an old man. He hadn’t been seeing his pulmonologist. His kidney’s never recovered, and his liver took a hit. About 5 weeks later, he passed away the night they transferred him to a long term care facility, still on a ventilator.
My medical background helped me be at peace with his death, knowing what type of quality of life he would have if he survived. Losing a sibling early in life is hard to put into words. I remember holding his friends while they cried at the viewing hours – they felt bad, while I was comforted with how much he was loved. I loved hearing their stories – they knew him in ways I never did.
My brother’s death reminded me of the fragility of life. We never know when our last day is. I’m grateful that I told him I loved him as I walked out of the hospital on my last visit.
Death is never easy, even if it’s someone you don’t have a good relationship. I remember driving home the night my father passed, not feeling sad but feeling an overcoming sense of being an orphan. Death teaches you that everyone grieves in their own way. It reminds us how fragile life is and to not wait to chase your dreams. It teaches us the importance of always, ALWAYS, letting those you love how you feel.