20 September 2014

My grandmother died today

I last saw my grandmother in 2012. She was quite frail, spending some 16 hours a day sleeping and generally unable to even sit upright for long periods of time. While I was there she remarked to my aunt, "I don't know why the Lord hasn't taken me yet". When I got home I wrote a post about dignity in dying, entitled I wish my grandmother could die. Soon after, she was admitted to a nursing home, where she died last night at the age of 93. While I'm saddened that she's gone, I'm really just relieved that she's no longer suffering. And while she will certainly be missed, she lived a very long and happy life, and that much at least is something worth celebrating.

I was thinking again about the issue of dignity in death, after having heard about what my grandmother was going through. She'd recently had surgery after a pair of nurses broke her femur while they were turning her, and that's on top of the staff having found broken vertebrae when she was admitted to the home. She had to use a bedpan, and could not even sit upright for long periods of time without great fatigue and pain.

If most of us could see our last days coming, I'm confident that the overwhelming majority of us would choose to die on our own terms rather than to become dependent and bedridden. It's one of many reasons why I support assisted suicide — because we deserve the choice to die with dignity, without having nurses wipe our backsides for us and lift us into wheelchairs so we can eat. I don't want to speculate as to whether my grandmother would have chosen that, but I wish she could have at least had the choice.

My grandmother was also at peace with her end. When you live to be 93, it's safe to say that you will outlive many, if not all, of your peers. She had been a widow for nearly 30 years and watched many of her neighbors and friends pass away. Not everyone reaches the end of their lives with such grace, but my grandmother, knowing her body was failing her, had for some time accepted that her end was approaching and seemed prepared. But it was not to be – she lived on for several years more, her body continually growing weaker.

I imagine it must be greatly frustrating to lose your independence, to have to be lifted, bathed, wiped, and even turned in bed. But I imagine there's also guilt, because no one wants to be a burden to their families. Caring for an elderly person can be very stressful, and can exacerbate divides between siblings or forge new ones — all while 24-hour care, medication, tests and surgeries pile up medical expenses. I know my grandmother would not have wanted that could she have chosen.

My mother drove to Wisconsin to see my grandmother in August, when she turned 93. Frankly, I was glad I wasn't able to go. My grandmother was a vibrant, witty, opinionated, charming and loving woman, and that's how I want to remember her. The real tragedy is that in our culture that has an almost paralyzing fear of death, she had to spend her last days as a shadow of the woman she truly was. I wish the end could have come sooner, and spared her the suffering and indignity. I wish she could have chosen when to say goodbye. And I hope that if I'm fortunate to live a similarly long and charmed life, our culture will have evolved enough to allow me to spare my loved ones the pain of watching me wither away.

It should go without saying on atheist blog, but I hold no hope of seeing her again in some charmed hereafter, and that causes me no discomfort. I'm grateful to have known her and to have so many fond memories. I only wish she could have met Vanessa, or at least seen our engagement photos. I know it would have made her happy to see her grandson so hopelessly in love.

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