I had an early introduction to death, not in a morbid, disturbing fashion, rather through the gentle and even beautiful experience of my paternal grandmother’s death. I have very few memories of my paternal grandmother, as I was very young when she passed away. Yet there are two vivid recollections I have which also hold particular relevance to how parts of my life have played out.
The first memory, the ‘living’ memory is of me sitting on her lap reading a made up story from the tiniest book possible to print. The size of the book was almost representative of me, a small child, and it illustrated my enduring love of stories and reading.
The second memory, the ‘death’ memory is slightly longer. I recall sitting around a children’s table with my mum and two siblings as we waited for a call from dad to come to see my grandmother who had passed away. We later visited her lying peacefully, as if sleeping, on her bed. Each of us placed a flower on her chest and gave her a kiss. There was no fear, just a tender moment of farewell from three young children.
This experience was a gift from our parents, the opportunity to see that our grandmother was no longer with us. It set the scene for a realistic view of life and death. At some point life would come to an end. My surgeon father was well known for his phrase, “you know not the hour”, having seen this play out time and time again in his professional life. This confirmed the preciousness of life and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It’s unfathomable to me when I hear about people aged in their 30s who have just experienced their first funeral. I am unable to tally the number I have attended. However I understand that death can be confronting and most people wouldn’t choose to take part in a funeral. Fortunately, most of my most personal experiences with death have been positive and in some instances slightly quirky.
Both of my deceased maternal grandparents were brought to the family farm for their last night before burial. That way the family, many who had flown in from other places, could say their final farewells. Both experiences were extraordinary opportunities to say parting words in our own time and manner.
There were times when some of us nearly jumped through the roof when it seemed they were about to take a final breath. My grandfather’s coffin must have doubled in weight as we stuffed little gifts into his pockets to take with him. However the sheep wool, thrown into the grave with the coffin, indicative of his farming life would have cushioned the load!
Despite these almost comical experiences, my view of death is not flippant. It holds much reverence. Yet it is pragmatic and I place a strong sense of importance on farewelling the deceased and supporting those dearest to them. At the time of writing, one of my closest friends was caring for her dying mother. The emotions were so raw that we skirted around the inevitability of the situation and often conveyed our thoughts and feelings through actions rather than words. While we looked to the positive side of the situation, particularly that she had the opportunity to say goodbye, it didn’t take away from the tremendous sadness of losing a loved one.
I cherish the last years of my maternal grandmother’s life. Up until then she hadn’t been very physically present in my life as she lived on the other side of the country. When she came to stay for a few weeks, I secretly hoped it would be longer and as it turned out it was. While it was difficult to watch her struggle with the thought of being a burden on my mother, I relished the opportunity to ‘Gran-sit’. We would talk about all matter of things. On one occasion I polished the brass bed she was sleeping in, while she kept a watchful eye and delighted in the transformation to its former glory.
When it came time to say a final farewell, I was quite surprised that my grief and sadness had been replaced with joy. She was ready to go and in her delirious state in the hours before death she announced that my deceased grandfather had entered the room. To me, it was clear that he was ready to take her and she was not going to resist.