Sunday, May 4, 2014

My grandma's abiding lesson about death

After two months of bed-ridden hospice care, my grandmother died on Easter morning as one of her children read to her. That child, my aunt, was diagnosed in that same two months with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, I'm watching photos of a former co-worker on Facebook as she goes through surgery and chemotherapy. And this weekend, I participated in the Brain Tumor Walk in Golden Gate Park in remembrance of my uncle-in-law, who died 2 years ago of brain cancer, and his mother, who died a few years before of the same disease.

To have made it to my mid-20s without a single family member dying is astonishing and, of course, unsustainable. It's made these deaths, and the concept of death in general, all the more terrifying to me. I feel utterly sideswiped. I'm trying hard to process the finality of it and it's just not sitting.

I'm lucky that, so far, my experiences with death have come with a finite countdown period, a time to say goodbye. But I worry about not using that time to its fullest. I worry that I'll miss my window. And worries beget more worries, until I'm a ball of fear: what if I get the unexpected call that someone I love has died? My husband, my sister, my parents -- it's all just a matter of time before they leave and I am alone. What if that time is today?

Instead of joyfully living big, I stay small and safe, and I beg my family members to do the same. For example, I have (more than a few times) fretted and cried as my husband goes biking or motorcycling. I'm already starting to worry about the physical safety of our children, who are hardly even twinkles in their father's eye yet. And if I'm honest with myself, all this worry about family is meant to mask the terror I feel about my own death.

But thankfully, amidst the paralyzing worry, the fear of being left alone, and the extreme discomfort I feel from not being able to control death, there's a saving grace. It's the feeling that my grandmother (her spirit? the memory of her? the aspects of her personality within myself?) is inspiring me to be a better person. In remembrance of her, I am sometimes set free of my worry: I am more active, I enjoy life more, I am more courageously vulnerable. It feels like her strength is there when mine fails. It feels like I'm not alone.


kym cheney said...

I experienced death for the first time at age 7 my grandmother who was my only mother figure at the time passed unexpectedly and it created a fear of death in me that became worse after my children were born. Not a good healthy way to live or raise children, I've had to really work at a simple thing like just allowing myself and those I love to live life and do it happy. I don't know why people fear death but it shows up now and again I just don't let it take me over.

Helen said...

Thanks for sharing, Kym. Like you, I've found that the fastest way around an emotion is through it ... just let it happen and let it run its course. Sometimes the fear of feeling the emotion is worse than actually feeling it!

What do you do to reclaim yourself in times of fear? I am still learning.