Last Tuesday, my husband and I took our 4-year-old to say good-bye to her grandmother, my mother-in-law. She’d been taken to hospital the night before with double pneumonia. It was the third time in as many weeks, and this time the doctors suggested the best approach was care and comfort. No treatment, just morphine for the pain. We were being asked to let her die.
My mother-in-law, Margaret, has been slowly slipping away from us for the last couple of years as dementia took hold and ravaged her memory and personality. The woman, whom I first met seven and half years ago, who called a spade a bloody shovel, who loved to play bridge and enjoyed an active social life, disappeared and withdrew. Margaret’s world shrank to her room at the hostel where she was cared for.
It’s hard for an active toddler to visit in such a confined space, even harder when Grandma Margaret doesn’t remember who you are.. But, I believe that it is important not to shield children from the process of aging and dying.So my daughter has always been given sympathetic, gentle, but straight forward explanations about death and dying. We have used the analogy of a flower that is fresh, but then wilts and eventually dies. We have read a book called ‘Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in between”, which beautifully explains that dying is a part of living.
But visiting Grandma Margaret in hospital was tricky. Miss E was initially quite reluctant to have any physical contact with her grandmother, which wasn’t very surprising. Grandma Margaret was propped up in a chair, in a hospital gown, an oxygen tube attached to her nostrils and sedated by morphine. Her skin was rice-papery thin, dry and bruised from cannulas and blood tests. Her breath was raspy, a rattle in her throat. Her feet tapped constantly, as if to a melody only she could hear floating around the ward. She didn’t recognise me or Miss E.
My husband and I started chatting about the King Parrots we could see outside the hospital window in the Grevillea bush, about the hibiscus, the poinsettia and the sudden flourish of spring-like weather in this first week of August. Miss E ate strawberries and hung back, until we started rubbing baby lotion into Grandma Margaret’s arms. Miss E tentatively joined in. Quite quickly her shyness was replaced by an eagerness to smother Grandma Margaret in baby lotion. Layer upon layer. As she won’t remember her grandmother as a healthy woman, I hope this moment of shared intimacy is the memory that will linger for Miss E.
My grandfather died when I was five or six and the overwhelming emotion that returns when I think about it, is confusion. My mother was gone for long periods of time as he slowly died. I don’t remember saying good-bye or even the last time I saw him and I didn’t go to his funeral.
I’m sure Miss E is confused as well. Her parents were dealing with their own grief and loss, and the confronting reality of watching a loved one slowly ebb away. Our patience was not what it should be, frayed by an emotional and physical exhaustion that is a heavy weight pressing down, squeezing in from all sides. As the week passed and death was ever-present, we spent longer and longer periods at the hospital. I was grateful for pre-school and my parents who struggled with us to keep a routine and some sense of normality in place. But at least as adults we can talk about our feelings, write a cathartic blog post, my four-year old doesn’t even have the words yet for what she is trying to process.
Most of us probably hope to die peacefully in our sleep when we’ve had a ‘good innings’. But death is rarely that considerate. Grandma Margaret died at 2am on the Friday night, nearly four days after they stopped all fluids and treatment beyond morphine. Her breath slowed, shallowed, puffed and stopped,and in her morphine-induced sleep, she died. But she’d been in death’s tight and uncomfortable grip for some time and we never knew which of our good-byes would be our last.
I haven’t had to help any of my children through the grief of losing a grandparent before, and it’s a very challenging experience as a parent. No matter what your spiritual belief, the finality of death is difficult even for adults. Explaining to Miss E that she has seen Grandma Margaret for the last time is not easy. She’s asked if that means we’ll forget all about her and I tell her of course not. You never forget the person or the love you felt for them and from them, but she won’t be seeing her again.
Like any 4-year-old, it pops up out of the blue, in her bold, bald statement of fact. Grandma Margaret is dead, but I haven’t forgotten her.
For Margaret – 1st December 1930 – 6th August 2011