By the time she got into her 90s, my grandmother was a wise woman indeed. She was wise about life. She was also wise about death. As the youngest of eight, she had outlived all her siblings, their spouses, and not a few of their children. She outlived friends and acquaintances as well as people whose period in history she shared. Every night for 10 years, her statement to me when heading off to bed was, “See you in the morning, God willing.”
“Grandma,” I’d reply. “You don’t have to think that way.”
“Posh. It’s only the truth,” she’d say and give me a kiss. So much for any concerns about not making it to another day.
To Grandma, a minister’s daughter whose life spanned almost the whole of the 20th century, death was simply another stage of life. To her, God really did have a mansion with many rooms and one of them was waiting, with the covers turned down on the bed and a mint on the pillow, just for her. Her faith was such that she trusted absolutely that God’s timing was better than hers. She looked forward to seeing her family and friends again and couldn’t imagine what all the fuss about death was for.
I remember her often for lots of reasons. But I especially remember those conversations about the end of life as I’ve now reached the age when I’m losing friends to cancer, to sudden heart attacks, to stroke, to advancing age. “Once you get to 60,” Grandma said, “you just never know who’s next.” Blunt, yes. And, again, true. Who lives and who dies often seems random to me. People who were fitness buffs and always on some new diet or exercise program have dropped in their tracks. Friends who are still smoking and eating too much red meat are chugging along. Oh sure, we should all take good care of ourselves but, for at least some people, making healthier choices makes for a better quality of life, not necessarily a longer one.
“So how do you handle having lost so many, many people?” I once asked Grandma.
“Oh, I think about them all before I go to sleep at night.”
“Isn’t that a little morbid?” asked my then 40-year-old self.
“Oh no, dear. I think about all the good times we shared and what made that person special and how much we learned together.” (I told you she was wise.)
“So how many people do you think about that way?” I asked.
“I think it’s about 400 now,” said Gran. “But I usually fall asleep before I get to the end of the list.”
“400!” I was dumbfounded. Imagine knowing, loving, and losing 400 closest friends. “Well, I am over 90,” she exclaimed.
This was a woman who was active in her church, her community, the Eastern Star, and the Scouts for most of her 90-plus years. She was a professor’s wife when being so was an honored profession. She was a member of the local hospital’s volunteer auxiliary and active on church committees. As a kid, walks through town with her made me crazy. We couldn’t go a block without someone wanting to exchange some information or just chat. I’d impatiently hang around on the edges of conversations, not realizing that I was taking in what it means to be a citizen of a town and how to care.
Once, when she was only 90, I came upon her weeping quietly. I knew she had recently lost a woman with whom she had had a 68-year friendship. “Oh Gran,” I remember saying. “It must hurt so much to lose her too.” “Oh yes,” she said. “Can we talk?”
So we talked. We talked about her friend. We talked about how they had been in step through every life stage: as young mothers, as involved community members, as witnesses to the next generation and the next and the next. She talked about mischief they had played on husbands and worries they’d had about their kids. And she talked about what it was like to be one of the last of a tight group of women who had lived a life together. “Talking about her gives me a chance to remember everyone else too.” She went on to explain that every new grief is a chance to revisit old ones; to again affirm the importance of those people in her life and the times and love they shared.
“I’m through for now. Let’s go for a walk.”
A “walk” at this point was a short and slow stroll around the yard. But she was still teaching. “You see, dear, when things are hard, it’s important to walk and sleep and eat as if they weren’t. If you take care of your body, it will take care of you.” My grandma, the sugar-holic, preaching good health habits? I was incredulous. This was a woman who would gladly eat chocolate cake three times a day if it were available. I said as much. “Honey, when you get to my age, it doesn’t matter anymore. I ate my vegetables for over 80 years. If I want to eat cake now, I’m going to eat it!” Right.
When my grandfather died, I felt guilty for not being able to fully cope for awhile, especially since Grandma seemed to be handling it better than I was. “Don’t fret about it,” she said. “Grief just takes as long as it takes. It you just let yourself feel it fully for a little while each day, you can do the things you have to do. Besides, I’m more used to it.” She taught me to respect that everyone’s timing in grief is as individual as our timing in all other things. She taught me that we can carry on with our responsibilities if we make sure to carve out some time to feel the grief fully at a special time each day. She taught me that time does heal and that, over time, even death becomes more manageable.
The loss of another friend this week brought all of my grandmother’s words back to me. Feeling at sea and sad made every task feel daunting. Then I remembered: Make time for grief. Talk about it. Remember the joy. Eat your vegetables. Be patient. Those are practical instructions I can follow even while feeling mad and sad.
Of course, I eventually lost Grandma too, at a still young 94. She was wise and with us until only a few months before death when she turned inward, getting ready. But of course, I really haven’t lost either my grandma or my friend. Gran lives on in all she taught me. My friend lives on in me in lots of good memories. And both are on my nightly list.
Grandma’s lessons for coping with death
- Accept that death is part of life and as such is nothing to fear.
- Death is random. We really have little control over who or when. Accept that too.
- Love and sharing don’t stop with death.
- You only really lose somebody if you stop remembering them.
- Every new grief is an opportunity to remember all those who have gone before.
- Talk about those you’ve lost with people who care. It’s good to share your feelings.
- Make room for the sadness. Then remember the joy.
- Take care of your body and it will take care of you.
- Be patient with yourself. Grief takes as long as it takes.