I hid in a hospital room with my cousin Scott while my Grandma Emma took her time dying at the age of 93 this afternoon. Her breathing was incredibly labored and terrifying, and I couldn’t look at her while she was struggling, so I stood behind the IV apparatus/pole behind the bed. I couldn’t bear the sights and sounds together. Instead of plugging my ears, I hid and listened.
Scott remarked that it had been 18 1/2 years since my Grandpa died. I started thinking about how lonely her life must have been these last two decades. I thought about myself being in her position for the last two decades, living alone without my wife with me. I couldn’t actually imagine it. We’ve been married for 12 of those years, and I don’t want my life to be lived without her in it. Not one bit.
I felt her loneliness for the first time today in the hospital room, while her brain was shutting down and her lungs were filling up.
I felt it way too late.
I hadn’t been much a part of my Grandma’s life the past two decades. I haven’t really thought about how lonely she must be at all. I didn’t see myself as a solution to her loneliness. As I experienced this empathy towards my Grandma today, I said, “I’ve got to show my kids a better way of being in the world”. What I meant was, I don’t want them to hide in the hospital room while their grandparents die. I don’t want my grandchildren (if I have any), to hide either. I don’t want them to hide in life or in death. I want my kids to be present, with their family and with their emotions. I want them to know that they are an important part of their grandparents’ lives until they are parted by death.
Somehow, probably for many reasons, I didn’t see myself as an important part of my Grandma’s life. When my dad sent me a text message this morning telling me that she would probably die today, I wasn’t sure if I would be welcome at the hospital given the fact that I haven’t been much a part of her life for quite awhile. What would it look like for Jeff to show up at the hospital at the end when I wasn’t there in the middle? I told my wife that I didn’t want to be back at the same hospital where my Grandpa died and my friend Gabe was in a coma for 5 months while I was in high school. The same hospital where my dad went when he had a stroke at age 40. I told myself that this was why I didn’t want to go.
But, honestly, I didn’t want to go because I didn’t think my presence would matter. I had disconnected myself. But, when Scott called and asked if I was going to come to the hospital, I decided that meant I was welcome and I had a place still in the family, despite all of my shortcomings and absence.
Today I didn’t necessarily grieve the loss of my Grandma Emma. We were all very relieved that she was finally going to let go. What I grieved was the loss of relationships and connection amongst my family that is still alive. I grieved how distant we were from one another, both literally and emotionally. I don’t know how to set things back to right, and I don’t know that we all even care about shalom in our family. But, I do know that it starts with a change of attitude about really living and engaging in one anothers’ lives while we are still able to engage.
We need this so that we have a different story when we are in the bed waiting to die. We need this so that our kids and grandchildren have a different story.
I imagine that my experience today is not unique. I also am not naive to think that the experience of empathy I felt today towards my Grandma will translate into a different way of being in this world, at least for me. But I do hope that my Grandma’s death, and my experience of it today, will not be in vain. I hope that life exists on the other side of death, not only for Emma but for our family together, here and now.
I already failed. I left the hospital 37 minutes before she breathed her last. I wasn’t present. This will not be the end of my story, even though it is the end of this chapter.