Grief: On Death & Dying
Updated: Sep 3
It has been difficult for me to come up with a topic to write about for a blog. I was wanting to steadily post here as a way to support people with free mental health tools, but sadly my Grandmother passed away in the morning of Monday June 19th, and it has been all that I have been able to think about.
(Photo: Me and my grandma while she was living at home in 2020)
It is interesting how society thinks elderly death is not as impactful as someone younger dying. We often hear, “Oh well at least she had a long life,” “He saw many things in his 98 years..” as though death is a token or consolation prize for life. Unintentionally it comes off as elder-death being less upsetting, because they “lived” and it is expected. (I am not attempting to ignore the concept that dying younger or suddenly doesn't have the addition of a complicated layer unpredictability and unfairness, but am pointing out that these elements are often disregarded when one grieves an elderly loss.)
Losing someone older still means there will be no more memories, as having more time with them doesn't necessarily make the loss any less impactful. No matter the circumstance, we always feel grief over the time we feel we didn't have with them. I remember it like a wave hitting me, and it being so unpredictable despite realizing her age and acute medical condition at the time - My mind struggling to grapple with the reality of what I heard, despite knowing her time had been approaching soon. It is not as though we imagine upon leave the nursing home or ending a phone call with them that they could disappear that day or an instant later, that our recent contact with them was going to be our last. We tell ourselves things in order to protect our psyche, “She has lived this long, she could live for years more” In other words, although death is more apparent when someone is chronically ill, or elderly, it does not mean you are not being faced with an unpredictable form of loss.
Sometimes there are subtle and internal warning signs of death that some of us miss while others are completely in-tuned. Prior to my grandmother's death my mother liked to wheel her in her wheelchair, down to a large Oak tree that was on the edge of the care-home's property where my grandmother had been living for the past few years. After reaching 100, she was confined to a wheelchair, but was partying right up until then. It was on her 100th birthday that shortly thereafter her ability to walk ceased almost immediately. She went from going out with her friends a few times a week, eating at diners and combing the thrift stores for good finds, to being completely confined to her bed or chair 24/7. After a year of her living life so confined, we felt it was in her best interest to establish her in a long term care home for proper care and socialization with other people her age. Luckily, after much resistance from my grandma, her mood, mobility and outlook on life improved drastically and her feistiness returned in full force, making us and the staff laugh daily with her outlandish and inappropriate comments.
Back to the tree: My mother mentioned the tree to her in May of this year (2023), that once it was warmer and less windy, (my grandma HATED the wind, especially up her back and on her neck), she would do the scenic walk toward the Oak. Immediately after the words left my mother's mouth, her mind was unable to generate the typical visualization of a future experience with grandma, (which typically follows after one makes plans) – in truth her imagination here evaded her; my mother was basically was unable to imagine going to the tree with grandma at all, ever again. We as humans often chose to ignore this type of information as predictive or premonitory, thinking it is just speaking to our fear of death and losing the one we love (which it could very well be). We convince ourselves this is just our fear of losing her, to preserve our sanity. If we do things right, (we tell ourselves): If we pray, if we take care of ourselves and are 'good and honest citizens,' -- we can live a very long time and evade death, we can even exist forever to some capacity in some eternal place among the clouds. Logic doesn't destroy our thought processes here because the generation of these thoughts is not dependent on them being logical or factual, but instead on them being reliant on a little something we call faith, and faith (as we have seen from cults, and religion to name a few sources) needs no proof.
Denial of the inevitability of death is circumvented by a faith-based concept of our invincibility (ability to avoid death or pain), and this invincibility is constantly reinforced throughout our daily lives in order to live: We drive in a car knowing that approximately 3,700 people die daily in road accidents worldwide, making that a total of 1.35 million deaths globally in a year, (source:https://www.ddlawtampa.com/resources/car-accident-statistics-you-need-to-know-in-2021/).
Some smoke cigarettes while simultaneously ignoring the hideously graphic images lining the box lid, showing some unlucky person hooked up to a respirator or shrivelling up, close to death, dying from lung, mouth or colon cancer from years of abuse: It can't and won't happen to us or someone we love, we have faith.
We carry the illusion that if we are aware of the harm then we can then prevent it, and ultimately and unrealistically control death before it arrives. We eat fast food, know it's bad for us yet continue to do it, which illustrates the power denial and repression have in allowing us to entertain situations we might logically & reasonably avoid. Without faith, repression and denial would not function so optimally as a buffering agent against the constant fear and inevitability of death. In fact if it were not for faith, we would likely never leave the house, nor even shower out of fear of falling on wet tiles and clunking out.
So my mother did not clue in at that point that this was some prediction of the future and probably part of that would have been that it was too difficult to believe or accept. So instead of listening to our intuition (the part that would be hard to believe) we go back to hiding behind the cozy cloak of denial or repression (the too difficult to accept stance), allowing us to feel safe once again from the abject limitations of death. My mother continued to the latter, the healthy denial or repression phase in regard to what she was experiencing, despite having thoughts like “You are not going to ever take her to that tree again.” I too had similar experiences, struggling to picture memories of us in our future selves, doing things together again. I only found out about my mother's experience after my grandmother passed, when we shared our stories – I wonder how many of us experience these subtleties and ignore or hide them out of fear of ridicule or shame? Ironically even if we did validated and listen to the messages as they arose and took them as fact, would it have protected her or us from her death?
My eerily similar experience happened the night she died, which was 3 am on a Monday morning in June. I was feeling a quick rush of acute and debilitating anxiety. I felt this urge to go and see her even though I suspected visitor hours were over. This anxiety happened around 9:53 pm the evening before she died and I kept trying to prove to my friends at the time, that this time it feels different, it feels like she wouldn't bounce back from this digression of pain and discomfort that she had been acutely experiencing the 2 weeks prior. My friends reminded me how many times I had these thoughts before, that this was always my fear (was it?) and how she had always come back to herself– how could one honestly tell if these were authentically predictive or not in such a context? As she aged she had suffered from several episodes involving severe sciatica pain due to her bones shrinking and pressing on the nerve as the doctor described in detail to us many months prior. Seeing her in pain and on opiates was probably the worst way to see her; out of it, confused, delusional, hallucinating...unable to tell who I was. Although she had never suffered from senility or dementia she had increasingly poor memory the older she got, again “just a natural part of aging,” the doctor would say. Oh how acceptable it all was, as it was presented to us – an example of how professionals in society impact the meaning and interpretation of what we deem an acceptable circumstance of which to die is.
Ultimately, this time it felt different -----------------
She was telling the nurse she wanted to die. She told the nurse she wanted to die on the Friday before she passed, around 1 pm when I came for my usual visit. It was like any other day - I had no idea this would be the last. The nurse told me that she thought it was her time to go. Devastated and panicking I didn't want to believe it and kept telling myself that her analysis was based on nothing objective or definite; vital signs were good, eating normal, sleeping slightly disrupted, pain manageable but severe. My immediate response to seeing her confused, unable to recognize me and wailing in pain, was for me to flee – not the ideal response here but a primitively automatic one. But as so many times before, she came back and things were fine and she just needed some time and pain medication and for me to not be worried. So I left and kept telling myself that this was no different than any other time and I am best to ignore the messages that tell me it wasn't, (along with balancing the rationalizing the intuitive parts of myself that kept saying that it was.) Sunday, at 3:00 a.m, she passed.
No matter how long someone lives, no matter how predictable their death might be, we still grieve, and it is still complicated, long, painful, intense and unpredictable. We still want them back, long for making new memories and get sucked into the past, being paralyzed by nostalgia. It still feels unfair and that that no matter how much time we had, they were taken too soon. There is no death in which we don't long for more.
In Loving Memory of Grandmother & Mother, Writer & Comedian, Mattie Martha Hersey Beck - February 29th, 1920 - June 19th, 2023. R.I.P.
If you have lost someone please share below your own experience or if you relate to my and my mother's experience - My thoughts are with you.
By: Jackie Bristow, Registered Psychotherapist and Canadian Certified Counsellor
Copyright of Jackie Bristow Psychotherapy. No copying or republishing allowed.