How Death Teaches Us to Live Life to the Fullest | Coping With Loss
My grandfather passed away late last year, just before Christmas of 2015.
He was one of my biggest influences growing up. While my grandparents were quite old-fashioned and strict, they were also very loving and doting. I spent 90% of my childhood with them and almost every memory I have involves them in some way.
He had prostate cancer in the past and had "overcome" or "beat it", to my understanding. I was led to believe that the prostate cancer had either come back and went undetected, or never truly went away and went untreated for several years which led to the cancer spreading throughout his entire body. Things went bad fast (we celebrated together at my brother's wedding in August and he was gone in December), as it spread into his bones and I watched him fall to pieces before my eyes.
It was so hard to keep my composure in front of him, to not burst into tears every time he cringed in pain trying to move, or he became breathless from only a few words. It was difficult for me to watch him feel humiliated for not being able to go to the bathroom for himself, to not be able to take care of my grandmother and her having to be placed in a home. He was so frail and pale, a shell of a man from what he once was, and I cannot think of anything more devastating to witness.
His last days were the most painful moments of my life.
In my mind's eye he will always be the vibrant and stubborn go-getter I remember as a child. Full of moxie and always doing something to keep himself busy. He was impeccable at wood work, making so many beautiful pieces of furniture and art. He would work up in his workshop and my brother and I would go and watch him in awe. He didn't mind us being around him, asking him a million questions. I used to think he probably never got any work done with us around, but he always put us to work finding him wrenches and tools.
He enjoyed working in the garden with my brother, grandmother and I. We would pick carrots and potatoes and wash them in the outoor basin and then use them in our lunch salad with the Catalina dressing that is still my favourite to this day. He would stand back and watch and laugh as we stuggled to carry a cabbage bigger than our heads. He always made us push ourselves when we didn't think he would be able to do something - he believed in us. Gardening gave him so much joy, and it broke his heart in his final years to only be able to have a few tomato plants that the neighbour would tend.
He would frequently play his harmonica or guitar for me in his office, and I would always ask him to play me something new. He would always try, even though he was busy paying bills or doing paperwork. That was the thing about him - he always had time for us. Even when he didn't have time, he made time. He never turned us away. Time with us was so precious to him, and his actions always showed us that.
Bird watching was another favourite activity we did together. He had this amazing Birds of North America-type book that we would read like others would read fairy tales to their grandchildren. His knowledge of birds was unmatched and he envied them as much as I envied him.
He loved to take us for rides on his tractor and lawn mower, pull us on our sleds and go for walks down the country roads.
Whisker rubs were his signature - whenever I was coming or going he would scoop me up in his arms, squeeze me tight and rub his scruffy, scratchy beard against my cheeks. I loved to hate it. He had the brightest smile and sparkle in his eyes when we would come over, it's like his heart filled with joy each time. I remember his smell, and any time I think back to those moments I feel like I can still smell his grandpa-like scent, and I long to be close to him for his scratchy whisker rub.
He was always someone who I felt truly enjoyed his life to the fullest and he made me appreciate so much beauty in life. People think he was a home-body who never "did" anything. But I think he did everything, just from the comfort of his own home. He was such a simple man and he truly lived each day to its fullest. I will always recall him fondly and I think I am the person I am today because of his influence.
My grandfather's passing was especially difficult for me, not just because he is the first person in my life who I was truly close with to pass away, but because he was like a father to me. I learned a lot from him in his life and I learned a lot from him in his death.
Dealing with death is a process, one that may very well continue until my later years in life, and one that is constantly evolving. But nothing helps you understand the fleeting beauty of life more than death. Nothing helps you understand what is important in life more than death.
Since my grandfather's death I've found myself caring less about superficial things like what people think of me. Some may judge me by the way I look or the way I talk or the work I do or how I live, and that's OK, it doesn't bother me anymore. I have a finite amount of time to spend on this planet and I'm not wasting it caring what people think, especially when it doesn't impact my life at all. Life is too short to stay in a situation that makes you unhappy or stressed out, and that involves people, too. I don't have the time to waste hating people, and I mean that in the sincerest way; if someone bothers me or is rude to me or I find them to be mentally draining, I won't hesitate to walk away without a glance back. I owe nothing to anyone, especially toxic people.
I also spend more time contemplating the vastness of the universe. It puts things into perspective, even though it sounds silly. It makes everything we do, our jobs, our passtimes, all seem so silly in the grand scheme of things. There's so much going on in the universe and we are here only to live and die. This means refusing to do work I hate just to pay the bills. Money is material, and although money makes the world go 'round I don't need to work a job I hate just to get some. My life is too short to resent my work and what I do. If that means never driving a fancy car or having a big mansion then so be it. My grandfather didn't drive a fancy car or live in a big house, but he had a vehicle and he had somewhere he called home with people he loved. That was enough for him, and that's enough for me.
Following that line of logic I've also started living a more minimalist life. I evaluate my purchases and ask myself if I really need them to be happy. Do I need this new purse because my old one is falling apart, or do I just want one as a social status? I am surrounded by people who buy things to have them - the latest in everything. You're not a part of any conversation unless you have the latest of some deeply sought-after item. Grandpa wasn't like that. He would tell you if he thought something was stupid and his honesty spoke volumes about the consumerism problem we have today.
I find myself making more lists of fun things I want to do - often very simple things like hiking a new trail or going on a small road trip, things that I post on my wall in my room so I see them every day and I am reminded that these are the things I want to do to make me happy and make memories. Sometimes it's easy to just waste your days away doing nothing or "relaxing" and telling yourself that you've earned it, but wasted days truly are wasted. I can still relax and go hiking. Some of the hikes I've taken this last year have been the most relaxing of my life.
I see every day as a gift, a gift that I am alive and able to enjoy the day in my own way. Every day is an opportunity to do or start something new, and to never let bad things overtake the good in my life.
My grandfather's death taught me something I thought I already knew, that the most important things in our lives are the people, the connections we make, the bonds we have - the love, the nurturing, the adventures, the stories, the memories we make. These are life's greatest gifts and death teaches us to grab hold of them because we don't know how long we have. I try to argue less and love more, spend more time with family and even spend some quality time alone. I use my grandfather's death as a reminder not to let my grandmother's time left go wasted, and I visit her often. We have tea together, we listen to music and we talk about the activities in the home. Although she doesn't know who I am, and she doesn't have the memories I so adore from our time spent together, I have them and that's all that matters to me. Even when she tells me the same thing she told me yesterday, I just listen and don't interrupt to tell her. It hurts her more to realize she can't recall than it does for me to just be patient with her. When she doesn't remember what we were talking about, or who she is, I'm always sure to be kind and gentle, and understand how much of a struggle it is for her. From my grandfather's death I've learned that despite all of this, the most important thing is that we are together. On her good days we will smile and laugh together, and on her bad days we will sit quietly and I'll just be there for her.
Sometimes we get consumed by things like what show is on television, and while there's nothing wrong with watching it, I often find myself asking "When I'm on my death bed, am I going to look back on all this time I spent watching the television or staring at my phone, and think fondly? Will I think it was time well-spent, or will I regret? Will I wish I had spent more time with my loved ones and made more memories?"
This means putting our loved ones first. If I had to do it over, I would have quit my job to be with my grandfather full-time, and that is one haunting regret that I have, a mistake I won't make a second-time around for my loved ones close to me. Some people may find this silly, and that's OK, I'm not here to convince you that this is what everyone should do, but instead explain what I've learned and why it's right for me. Some would say, why bother, there's nothing you can do to stop someone from dying? That's right, we can't stop death, but we can cherish the moments we have until that time, and to me, that's more valuable than money. Time is my greatest asset, and it's a shame to waste it working when someone dear to me is dying. While we sometimes think about our jobs as being everything, at the end of the day we all die and end up in the same ground as everyone else, and it's the moments we make while we're alive that count. Jobs can be replaced, memories of loved ones lost cannot.
Let me explain why:
I had never seen someone die, and I had never really had anyone close to me die before my grandfather.
I had gone to see him and had lunch with him before going to work. He was quiet and groggy, but he was still full of piss and vinegar, like the grandpa I remembered.
Then I had to leave, and told him I would be back tomorrow.
I remember walking in the next day, shocked at the sight of him and how he had changed in appearance so drastically. And then I remember being told that he was now fully unresponsive and had been all day. My heart welled up with sadness and I leant over his bed and said, "Grandpa, it's Sam, I'm here to see you" and I squeezed his hand.
It was as if he was jolted with a defibrillator, his eyes opened and he looked over at me.
This shocked us, considering he had been unresponsive for so long. I tried to fight back the tears so he wouldn't see me cry. He was responsive long enough to see me, squeeze my hand back, and that was the last time he opened his eyes.
His last days I was with him in the hospital, I called in to work and was completely prepared to lose my job. I didn't care, I had to be there for him. Him waking up to the sound of my voice and the touch of my hand meant that he knew I was there.
I slept on two chairs pushed together, holding his hand as he quivered throughout the night. I felt his feet, counted his breathing, read the pamphlets the nurses in hospice gave to me to read about the stages of death. I watched for the signs that he was in his final stages, I hardly took my eyes off of him.
I did a lot of reading online to prepare myself, to know what things to look for, and although I'm not a spiritual person I do believe in "letting go". One website shared an anecdote about how sometimes we have these beautifully stubborn people in our lives who need to let go, but they're so stubborn that they can't. They want to stay, they want to take care of their family and they're worried about what will happen when they go. That sometimes they need to hear it from a family member, that it's OK to let go, and then be left alone to go peacefully. This sounded so much like my grandpa. So damned stubborn. It felt selfish to keep him in his pain, and I wanted him to know he could let go and it would all be OK, but I hadn't built up the courage to say it to him. I wanted to keep him for myself for a while longer.
If you've ever had someone dying of cancer or something similar you've probably been told not to speak about the person as if they're not in the room, even if they're unresponsive, because they can hear you. When someone is in their final stages of death and they become unresponsive, they can still hear you and they may still be aware of their surroundings as their hearing is the final thing to go. The nurses tell you to talk to them, to say things that will comfort them and put them at ease, which may make the death process easier.
After a long day in hospice, everyone else had gone for something to eat and it was just me and my grandfather. I held his hand, and I put our favourite book, Black Beauty, on audio. I placed my phone on his pillow, close to his ear, and I laid down next to him and we listened to the entire book together. The entire time, his quivering had subsided, his breathing had steadied, and he was clenching my hand as if he was at ease and listening with me. Even though he was unresponsive, he was still there, and he was aware, and I think that moment meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to me.
I tried to speak without crying, because I didn't want him to know I was sad and afraid, even though I was. I told him, "Grandpa, it's Sam. I want you to know that I love you, and it's OK to let go. You don't have to be strong anymore. We're all going to be OK. It's time to let go."
I left, leaving him with what I hope were my words and Black Beauty ringing in his ears, knowing deep in my heart that I wouldn't see him again, even though I planned to go back the next day. But I knew that I had to leave or he wouldn't be able to let go.
He died that night.
I'll always have his memory. I wouldn't trade anything for those last moments we shared together, the lifetime of happiness he gave me, and the lessons he taught me.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die.