There is nothing, really, that can prepare you for the death of a loved one. Even when you wish it, say, in the sense of ending their suffering. Turning off machines, letting someone go…we can all justify it logically in our minds. But when you are there watching a living, breathing creature suddenly go still, it is always a shock. And it’s in that moment that you realize – you never really believed they would die. A tiny speck of hope lived on in your heart. It took over all of you, and then it betrayed you.
As a relatively young person, I’ve fallen into that trap of thinking, somehow, old people are prepared to die. I mean, surely they must know their time is limited. As my great aunt once said: “None of will escape this world alive.” And I always thought that as a person nears ninety or hundred years that they come to peace with it, accept it, and somehow become unafraid. But I was wrong.
My step-grandmother, Betty, passed away this week. She is, in fact, my step-grandmother, but I always called her Betty. I did so because when she married my Papa, I was still grieving my biological grandmother, Papa’s first wife, my mother’s mother. Dorothy. But, in truth, Betty was my grandmother far longer than Dorothy, by God’s will. I was eight when my grandmother died. And 34 when Betty died. I knew her as my grandma for almost 26 years. She never made me (or asked me to) call her Grandma, but my children called her “Little Grandma,” chiefly because she was a petite little thing and my Papa (whom the kids call “Big Papa”) is a towering six foot five.
The start of this blog might be a bit misleading. I was not there when Betty died, but I have witnessed other loved ones pass into the great beyond, so I know the feeling well, and those memories sprang to my mind when I learned of Betty’s death.
Two years ago, I had a bad dream about my papa, which then led to a “feeling” that time was of the essence to spend time with my grandparents. You see, they live in Washington and I in Las Vegas. Carting a family of four up to Washington is expensive. Papa and Betty used to come to Vegas a couple times a year and I’d see them then. Of course, throughout the year I’d call and write them (emails and letters) often, so we were always in touch. But about three years ago, they announced that they’d no longer be taking the trip south to Vegas because it was too hard on them.
So, after I had this dream and this instinct that we needed to get up to see them, I spoke with my husband about it and we decided we would deplete our entire savings, make some other large sacrifices, and spend a week up in Washington with my grandparents. As fate would have it, the day before we were to fly up to Washington, Betty’s sister who lived in Texas – died. Papa and Betty had to leave and fly out to Texas. Well, all of my travel arrangements were non-refundable (aka – the cheapest options). So, we went on vacation in Washington. It was a great time, but not what we’d hoped for. Then, I started to question my “gut feelings.”
I remember speaking to Betty about her sister’s death, telling her how sorry I was, even though her sister was in her 90s. And Betty said something to me I’ll never forget. She said, “Everyone thinks that just because a person is in their later years that they’re not afraid of death, and that is the farthest thing from the truth. It’s a frightening, horrible, awful thing that must be done. And you’re never, ever ready for it.”
Betty was afraid of death, like almost everyone is, and it’s been really bugging me the past week at the services to hear the pastors say that she met her death with peace, because she didn’t. She was terrified, to the very end.
Over the last two years, I’ve worried about Papa, but never – ever- about Betty. My sense of urgency and anxiety was always about him. So, when Betty went in for her routine heart doc’s appt. last Monday, it never occurred to me that she would be dead on Thursday, and it certainly never occurred to her either.
But the thing that really, truly strikes my heart is that she was aware of all that was happening around her -at least in the beginning, and that she was afraid. How the hell do you live with a thing like that?
Death is a very surreal, sad thing. And I wish I had a better attitude about it. I believe in God. Let me rephrase, I believe in Jesus. I believe, but am also a doubter. And I think that’s okay, because I don’t think we are all meant to be sheep who do not question. Doubting keeps me searching. But never is my doubt stronger than when a loved one dies. But there is one thing that always persists in these dark moments of life.
We grieve with hope. That is the Christian distinction. We grieve with hope of a forever. But I’m not going to pretend that the hope portion is dominant. It is a small, sometimes seemingly infinitesimal fraction of all that we feel.
But it is there. And to it, I cling.