My grandma passed away June 16th, 2012. We knew it was coming as she her health had been declining over the course of the past few years. We just didn't know when.
My grandma was more than just a typical grandma to me. She mothered me when my mom couldn't (or wouldn't, as is sometimes the case with an alcoholic). My parents divorced before I was born, my dad was away for work a lot while I was growing up and my step-mom was really difficult to deal with. I say all this only to point out that my grandma was the only person who felt to me both steady and loving during my upbringing. I was very lucky to have had her. She was such a generous person, always helping people and trying to be kind to them. Certainly, she had her faults like any of us do, but she was a person of good intention and of such a sensitive and giving heart that it sometimes amazed me. She taught me so much.
When she first got really sick a few years ago, she went into rehab and such and when she came home, I took over the majority of her care, though, my mom started to help me more as time went on. There were numerous hospital and rehab stays (how she hated those rehab stays in the nursing facilities!), home health aids and physical therapists, doctor appointments galore, medicines to keep track of, diapers to change, messes to clean, more stress than I could have imagined there would be and... a woman having to endure all the humiliations and pain of dying. It broke my heart to see how miserable she became. At the same time, as my frustration with everything grew, I became a grump. I never understood what it truly meant to care for a dying person at home until I was the caretaker, and I never imagined what it is like to watch someone you love fade away toward death.
My grandma developed pneumonia yet again and was doing yet another rehab stint. My mom and I went to see her every few days and the last day I saw here before everything fell apart, when I asked her how she was doing, she actually said she was "good". I was in a hurry to run some errands that day and I can't remember if I told her I loved her. I hope I did.
Three days later, she was in the E.R., unresponsive and on a ventilator. She had developed an infection and became septic. The nursing home where she was undergoing rehab left much to be desired in their handling of that situation and since I chose that place for her, I feel a great responsibility for what I see as neglect on the part of the staff.
For the next week and a half, I was at the hospital nearly every day. My grandma actually improved greatly and was taken off her ventilator after three days. We all thought she would pull through it. As it turns out, her body attacked her brain while she was septic and within several days it was very apparent that she was now suffering some heavy duty dementia. She had lost her ability to swallow, so my mom allowed the doctors to insert a feeding tube through her abdomen (which I was against, as I didn't want to prolong her suffering). I can't blame my mom for allowing it. The doctors were telling her they thought they could help my grandma. I didn't believe it.
I was struggling so much with everything by then. My heart was breaking. I wanted to much to talk to her and tell her how sorry I am for being so impatient with her, for possibly making her situation more difficult on her. I wanted to hug her and tell her how much I love her and how thankful I am to her. I was worried those things would frighten her, though, as she had become rather afraid of death as her health declined. So I kept it to myself and instead just tried to talk to her as much as she seemed able to understand.
The last day I saw her in the hospital, I told her I'd come and see her the next day and I loved her. She told me she loved me, too, though I wonder if it was more an automatic response than her understanding what I said.
The hospital sent her back to the nursing home the next day. The nursing home called me at midnight that night, asking me to come sign hospice paperwork so that they could start the proper medications and stop feeding, etc. I signed the last paper around 3am. That was really difficult. She had said to me not long before that I wanted to lock her away. I felt I had just signed her life away - the ultimate act of throwing her out. I didn't sleep that night. The nurse told me the process could take up to two weeks, which was horrifying to me. The idea of her suffering that long was terrible. I was going to head back to the nursing home to see her the following afternoon.
Around 2:30pm, the nurse called to say we needed to get there right away. My grandma's respiration was declining. We arrived around 3pm, and at 3:46, with my mom and I by her side, my grandma passed away.
She donated her body, so in the three hours it took for the team to come pick her up, I busied myself with anything I could find. Maybe it was shock, I don't know, but I just needed to be busy while trying to make sure my mom was alright. By the time I drove home and collapsed on my sofa with my significant other, the falling apart started.
I'm not sure I'm done with the falling apart yet. Since my grandma donated her body, there was no funeral right after her passing. We held a memorial for her a few weeks later. I spent a lot of time in those two weeks gathering photos and working on a memorial DVD, and writing a eulogy. I cried more than I can remember doing in my entire life. I generally don't fall into tears easily but since my grandma passed, they just come, sometimes out of nowhere.
I've struggled with the immense guilt that I have surrounding her care, both at home and at the nursing home before she got so sick the last time. I have a massive germ phobia (in the truest sense) and so I didn't allow myself to touch her without gloves or to hug her when she probably really needed it. I can't tell you how much I wish I'd have hugged her just one more time. The urge to do so is physical sometimes. I can remember lying in bed with my boyfriend and getting such an urge to hug her that I'd hug him instead while he slept, with tears streaming down my face and an ache inside that I just couldn't relieve.
I never realized how lonely grieving can be. I thought that maybe people found comfort in the other people who also lost that loved one but it hadn't been that way for me. Dealing with my mom's grief sometimes feels oppressive on top of my own and, sadly, I find myself wanting to avoid it. I stopped talking much about it after the first few weeks because I didn't want to seem weak, and I didn't want to be that person who people start to avoid because they're just such a downer all the time. It's not that I don't have people who love me deeply. I simply am not very good at being vulnerable. It's made all this that much harder, really. Sometimes I just want to tell someone that it still hurts so much that I don't know what to do with it, that I miss her more than I can sometimes bear and that I am so ashamed of myself that it makes me feel ill. I want to tell them and I want to weep and I want that to be OK, but it doesn't seem OK. I grieve alone.
In many respects, I feel like, at 32, I've lost my mother rather than my grandma. I hear people talk about their grandparents dying and they often seem relatively nonchalant about it. I was the same way when my other grandparents passed. This is different. I thought I would be prepared. I thought it would be more of a relief (it has been, in its way). There is nothing that could have prepared me for how difficult this would be to deal with.
I can function on a daily basis now. I can eat, I can sleep (about as well as I could before, anyway), I can find pleasure in my niece and nephews and sometimes in other things I enjoy. Still, when it hits, it hits hard and it feels like I'm starting all over again. I think about her every day, and every night when I go to bed. Sometimes it makes me smile and sometimes I end up a mess of tears. I suppose it's a good sign that sometimes it makes me smile. I find myself feeling terrified of forgetting things about her. I try to keep her face in my mind, the way her voice sounded, the perfumes she wore. I don't want to forget her.
I don't know what's "normal" in grieving a grandparent, or anyone else very close to you, for that matter. I don't know how long it will hurt. I take comfort in the thought that, someday, the memories of her will bring more joy than pain. I understand that grief is a journey that's never the same for any two people and I know I'll get there. It's just taking much more time than I anticipated.
This has gotten rather lengthy, hasn't it? I suppose, when you bottle it up, it all pours out at once.
In this moment, I'll dry my face and blow my nose, and I'll think of something that makes me happy. I'm glad that things can still make me happy.