Death, and How We Deal With It
My grandfather died on November 30th.
He went peacefully, and it’s something we’ve been expecting for a couple of years now, ever since he was first diagnosed with cancer. Even though his health had declined in the last few weeks of his life, he wasn’t on any medication and his mind was still clear right up until the end. His last words were a joke about how his wife (my grandmother) would be jealous of the nurse who was holding his hand.
I cried for days. In fact, I’m tearing up a little bit right now, just writing about it. I’ve never been (particularly?) good at dealing with death, and it upsets me (almost?) irrationally, even at times like this, when it was an expected thing and as peaceful as anyone could possibly have wished for.
You’ll note, of course, that I put the “particularly” and the “almost” in parenthesis, with question marks. Not entirely proper punctuation, of course, but it reflects my confusion, and the true subject of this blog post. The truth is, I’m not really sure how we should deal with death, and so saying that my particular reaction to it is somewhat poor and irrational is, in and of itself, not the most rational of statements.
In the past two weeks I have, of course, talked to many people about my grandfather’s death, and all of those people had different levels of separation from the event. Some of them were friends, with no connection to my grandfather at all. They could feel and express sympathy for me, but not really experience any true sadness at the death of a person whom they’ve never even met. Their reactions were predictable, socially proper, slightly awkward, and exactly what mine would have been had the situation been reversed. Where it gets interesting, though, is in looking at the reactions of other members of my family. These reactions are more widely varied, and express, I think, a lot more of that confusion that I was talking about.
My dad’s family is not a group of people given to wild emotional displays. They tend to be stoic to the point of seeming callous, or even borderline sociopathic — not because they are unfeeling people, really, but because they just don’t express those things that they are feeling. And so of course, when my dad called to tell me that his father had just died, there were no tears shed (on his part, anyways). He stuck to facts, laid out the pertinent information, and then changed the subject (we ended up talking about when I’d be visiting for the holidays, and what sort of gifts I’d be interested in receiving, and what my sister is up to lately). Up until a few years ago, I’d have said that his method of, “absorb facts, move on to something else,” is very effective. As a kid, I was always kind of envious of just how calm and collected my dad could be in the worst of situations. It’s only as an adult that I realize that such a method only serves to keep your emotions very private. It doesn’t get rid of them, only makes them harder to express and to share. It forces you to deal with things alone, and often makes those around you feel as though you’re a hard, unfeeling person, impossible to empathize with. While I still sometimes wish that I didn’t cry at the drop of a hat, I’m actually pretty okay with not being an emotional robot, now, because I can see both the good and the bad sides of it.
My sister’s more like me in her abilities to deal with grief, if somewhat more flamboyant about it. There were tears, shared anecdotes of our childhood, and not a small amount of ineffectual arm-flailing (she tends to flail when she’s upset … it’s both cute and annoying). Unfortunately, this all comes at the beginning of exam season for her, and I’m a bit concerned that her unhappiness might have been an impediment to her (already not exactly stellar) study skills. We shall see how that turns out when the final grades come in, however.
Most interesting to me was my grandmother’s reaction, and I have to say that I hope to one day be as much like her as possible. She lost her husband of 60 years, the man whom with she had 7 children. They married young, never had much money, but made it through together and always loved each other dearly, filling in each other’s weak points. I always loved watching the two of them doing simple, household things together, like making food or washing dishes. Grandma would bustle about very efficiently, while grandpa would stand by and await instructions — usually requests for things from high-up shelves or cupboards, since grandma stands under 5 feet tall while grandpa was a towering 6’8″. They always called each other by pet names and weren’t afraid of showing their affection in front of the kids, holding hands and hugging and kissing whenever there was a quiet moment. Theirs was one of the first truly functional and happy relationships that I ever saw, and it always gave me hope, a reminder that sometimes love really is all that you need to make a life together.
One might think that having lost the man who was quite honestly her other half, my grandmother would be a complete wreck right now. All the family was kind of worried, and we all made a point of arranging visits, phone calls, etc. to make sure that she wouldn’t feel alone these first few weeks. But she surprised us, and has been the most composed and functional out of all of us. She’s not hiding her emotions like my dad does — she’ll talk openly about her sadness and sense of loss. But she’s also not rendered helpless by those emotions, like my sister and I tend to be. She’s continuing on, just as she always has. She’s even insisting on hosting Christmas dinner at her house, just like every year … although I suspect it’ll be myself or one of my uncles fetching things from the top shelves, now.
Seeing her going on like this, being able to continue and be happy despite having lost so much with my grandfather’s death — it gives me that same sense of hope that their relationship always did, and reminds me that she has always been the strongest woman I’ve ever known. Even grandpa, big and strong as he always was, didn’t deal with death quite so well: he hated funerals, and didn’t like talking about any of it.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, so it’s hard to take any comfort in the thoughts that most people express at times like these. But I know that if there were a “rainbow bridge”, grandpa’d be waiting on the other side of it, very patiently. He’d sit down in a comfy chair, read a book, listen to the hockey game on the radio, and wait for grandma to be ready for him.
I can only wish that everyone could have so much love.