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A Lesson in Dying

It has been a long time since I’ve lost a loved one. But last summer, I lost my

grandmother. She was 95. Her body had been deteriorating for years, decades really.

But her mind remained sharp until the end.

I didn’t anticipate her death to affect me the way it did. Though, who could have

predicted her final days? Her bronchitis had turned to pneumonia. The muscles in her

throat had weakened and she could not swallow. She was on oxygen, a feeding tube,

and catheter; and she was prohibited all medications including painkillers to numb the

pain of severe rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.

At the hospital, I sat by her bedside and took her hand. She winced. Her crooked,

knobby fingers were throbbing. “Ice” she said to me. It was the only numbing solution

allowed. I retrieved a bag of ice from the nurse, and gingerly placed it on her hand. A

coughing spell broke the silence. I grabbed for her bedside pail. “Go ahead, spit it out,” I

urged. “Let your dad do it,” she said. Dad was talking to a doctor outside. “He can’t right

now.” She conceded with embarrassment, and I wiped her mouth cheerfully trying to

soften the awkward moment.

“I’m hungry” grandma told me. Dad came in. “She’s not allowed to eat anything,” he

explained. “She still can’t swallow.” “How about water, mom?” He asked holding up a

tiny sponge attached to a plastic stick. She opened her mouth and he swabbed inside.

Dad whispered that her fluid-filled lungs could not handle much more liquid.

I closed my eyes thinking of Jesus on the cross. “I thirst” he called out. I imagined

Mother Mary looking helplessly at her son. I began to pray for Mercy. I had recently read

that every family needs a Prayer Warrior. Grandma was our’s. She took an hour each

night to pray for all 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. Now, it was

my time to pray for her.

With tears in my eyes, I asked, “Grandma, do you know that you’re my role model?”

She shook her head. “You’ve created so many beautiful memories for me. For our entire

family.” I began reminiscing about playing as a child at her old house. It was a feeble

attempt to distract her from the pain. I talked about past family holidays; slumber parties

with cousins; the annual trip to WinterFest; sports games and dance recitals; her old

camper and weekends at Big Bone Park. The memories came flooding out of a dusty

corner of the attic in my head. It was like opening a trunk full of treasures.

Later, I found myself alone with her. “This is no way to live,” she confided to me. “The

doctor asked if I want to keep fighting here or go home. I want to go home,” she said.

With tears in my eyes, I nodded. “Grandma, I want whatever you want. I love you.” The

idea of death had always terrified her. Partly because she was a Matriarch, always

looking after and praying for the family. Partly because she was tough. She had lived

through the Newport Flood, multiple miscarriages, her husband’s unexpected death,

and much more. (I’m not sure we’re raising women like her these days.) But now, here

she was, submitting to the inevitable end.

Grandma began at-home hospice. The doctor said she could eat. She wanted seafood, shrimp to be exact, but never was strong enough to eat it.

During her remaining days, her family huddled around her 24/7 - consoling her and

praying. At times there wasn’t enough space in her bedroom for everyone. Grandma

was always trying to pull the family together. And that’s what she did until the end.

In the days that followed her death, I experienced an unfamiliar sadness. Her final cries,

“Jesus, help me” haunted me. I’m happy for her that it’s over, and that Jesus took her

into his loving arms. But I’m sad the woman who represented so much goodness is


Thank you, grandma, for your suffering. After years being nearly blind, hard of hearing

and impaired by arthritis, suffering turned out to be your greatest gift of all. It kept a

family together. It brought about lessons in faith, love, humility, compassion and

strength. Not just anyone could have suffered as long as you did. You fought a good

fight. And now I know you’re enjoying your final reward in heaven.


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