Recently, someone I cared about passed away. My Granddad was 90 years old, and sometimes when people are around that long, you think somehow there is always tomorrow. It’s easy to push aside the thought that someone might be here today and gone tomorrow – I mean, no one wants to spend all their time worrying about that, do they? Why make yourself look at something that seems to have no possible answer except to be sad about something you can't avoid? But after being with my Granddad during his last few weeks on earth, and being there as he died, I am glad I didn't avoid the sad stuff. and here's why.
I chose to stay with my Granddad during what was supposed to be a couple of weeks of getting back into the swing of things after a fall and a few weeks of promising rehabilitation, but what ended up being his last few weeks of life. I am grateful that we had the chance to talk about this and that, to enjoy watching old British murder mysteries on TV, and to give him a hug when he said, "Thanks for looking after me today."
My granddad was also ridiculously stubborn. He didn't receive help easily. It wasn't easy to watch him struggle, knowing there were some things he just wouldn't allow me to help him with, even if it would've made his life easier. The morning he passed away, we were both getting ready to go visit my grandma in the nursing home. I was there when he fell over and went into cardiac arrest. I called the ambulance and stayed on the phone; I had to do CPR until they arrived.
A lot of people who knew I was there when he passed away would immediately remark how traumatic it must be. They probably crossed themselves and thank God they haven't been in that situation, and hope they never will. A lot of people avoid being with ageing family members, or avoid looking at what is coming hoping it'll just happen and they'll ride that wave when it comes.
But for me, the whole experience was a gift. And I was so glad that I had been prepared and aware. A week before my Granddad had died, I was telling my friend and colleague, Wendy Mulder that I desired to be more 'switched on' in life. I didn't want to miss opportunities and moments by not being present enough, or by avoiding dealing with the difficult parts of caring for my Granddad, or with anything I perceived as difficult or challenging. I am so glad I got to have that conversation with Wendy, because I approached things different when I got back to my Granddad that day. At that time, I didn't know that my grandfather would soon pass away, but I did know that it was important to me not to avoid anything or become distant or switched-off when it became uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
And for helping me navigate all those places that we are told must be fraught with grief or stress, Wendy has been a huge gift in my life. She has been there for both me and my mother when it was time to put my grandmother in a nursing home. The tools and questions and advice she had, both from her own experience, but also with the tools and questions she would offer, made the process phenomenally easier, as it has made dealing with my grandmother's Alzheimer’s (and helping my Mum deal with it) so much lighter and easier, too. In the time leading up to my Granddad's death and the weeks afterwards, Wendy gave me tools and possibilities for being and doing something completely different. For not losing myself amidst the drama and sadness, to empower myself and those around me as well.
When caring for ageing people, we often see their lives shrink and we think there is less and less we can do, that it's kind of a one-way trajectory and we can feel powerless about it. But what my conversations with Wendy have shown me is that there's ALWAYS so much more possible and it never looks like how you think it will! Through her amazing insights and different points of view, I have realised that there are all kinds of areas of life where we are taught to believe grief has to prevail, that doesn’t have to be so. In fact, it can open your eyes to something so amazing and beautiful, if you are willing to just be there and not judge what is going on.
The day my granddad died, I felt sad, and I felt relieved for the end of his struggle, and I knew that everything was going to change for a lot of people. And it wasn’t a bad thing. I could feel whatever I was feeling without any sense of wrongness. I could allow everything that was coming up, for me and others, to just be there, and to let things be chaotic, messy, sad and joyful all at the same time. To be able to be present in the moment, no matter what was occurring, is something I didn’t even consider I could be, especially in the midst of losing someone for whom I have cared so deeply my entire life. But I did it and I am it, and I am so grateful for Wendy empowering me to be that.