On life, death, and grief

When it comes to mortality, I’ve wondered what could possibly be worse than the horrifying inevitability of death. The answer, it seems, is the death of someone who matters most, who you love so profoundly and deeply — someone you’d give your own life for in a moment, who you cannot imagine being without.

That someone is my grandmother, and very soon, her incredible life will end. I don’t know how I’m going to exist without her, and if I’m honest, there are moments I’m not entirely certain I want to.

What happened was sudden and could not have been predicted or prevented. Had it happened to a younger woman, the body would have had more of an ability (or a chance) to recover. But a woman in her 92nd year of life, as fit and healthy as she was, simply couldn’t withstand the massive stroke and subsequent seizures which resulted in a sustained brain bleed.

Over the past week on a stroke recovery unit, after having spent the previous week in the ICU, she – and we – worked so hard to bring her body back, to regain use of her right side, her ability to speak and swallow and breathe. But what small gains could be made simply aren’t enough to sustain life.

Her body cannot recover.

I’m grateful for the time we had together last week where, hour after hour, we quietly held hands as I stroked her hair and, when not kissing her beautiful, soft cheeks, I simply held my own cheek to hers each time a quick tilt of her head beckoned I do so.

Even in silence, through her deep, purposeful and powerful gaze, she said so much. The considerable energy spent putting words together were to tell me she loved me and call me “kotki” — kitten in Polish, which has been her special name for me since forever.

When people matter to me, they matter. Those I welcome into my life will matter for different reasons, with relationships ranging from entirely professional to deeply personal.

My grandma, for so many reasons, has always mattered most. That will never change. She considers me her daughter, and I look to her as a mother. We are the very best of friends.

I’ll write much more about her in time, and detail just why she and I share what we do. I’ll do my best to introduce this remarkable woman to those who didn’t have the privilege of knowing her firsthand.

Right now I’m grieving, and getting through as best I can. Which is to say, I’m having a very hard time, and my heart hurts in a way I’ve only experienced in nightmares – nightmares about her dying – but there’s no waking up from this anguish. It’s brutal and destructive and overwhelming. I don’t know how to work this through, and no one can offer guidance or reassurance because the only reprieve for what’s happening is for it not to happen — and that’s not an option.

The only way out is through, and I know it’s going to get harder for a while yet. Though hard to believe at the moment, I do know logically this sorrow will, in time, become a little lighter. Become bearable, even, in a way that, right now, it’s certainly not.

I had to return to Calgary this week for my own medical things (on my way to the hospital to see grandma, I got a call on my cell to come in for testing on my heart…) and I will find out Thursday when I can return to Ontario for a solid few weeks, or until everything plays out. If not this coming weekend, then certainly before next. My doctors are working hard to make this doable.

Palliative care is helping transition grandma home where she’ll live out whatever time she has left surrounded by friends, family, her kitties and her gardens. She’ll be out of hospital and back where she’s at peace tomorrow, and I will be there with her, by her side again, just as she wants, as soon as I can.

I know there’s nothing unique about this. Death is inescapable, the accompanying grief a universal experience. Life will go on, as it does and should, for everyone else. I’m just unsure of how to resume my own without her in it.

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