Death: a celebration of life and love

Not every death is the same. Each has a story to tell of life, love, joy and sorrow.

Gone too soon:

The first experience of a person I know dying was Jimmy Byron when I was about 10 years old, possibly younger. He had been playing at a beach that we often frequented, digging caves in the sandbanks created by tides. Unfortunately, the sandbank collapsed on top of him, and while he was dug out relatively quickly, it wasn’t soon enough.

But more than his death, I remember how we (at boarding school) were brushed off as irrelevant to the process. As if we, being children, wouldn’t feel pain or loss or grief. We didn’t participate in the funeral. I don’t remember any adult sitting down with us to discuss how we felt. We were talked over, not to. As if children don’t have feelings or suffer any loss.

It was a totally different experience at 17, back in New Zealand, when our friend Stuart passed away. He didn’t even go to our church or school, but we thought of him as a good friend. His tragic accident was a life that ended too soon: someone who seemingly had everything going for him – athletic and intelligent. Most importantly, loved.

While his funeral was a celebration of his life, it also acknowledged a deep sense of loss. What struck me so profoundly was the compassion and understanding that I felt from everyone around me. It was okay to cry and be upset; it was a time for mourning.

A ripe old age:

In a life of stark contrasts, I look back on my grandad’s passing in 2007, at 86 years old. His funeral was a celebration of life. It’s not that there wasn’t a feeling of sadness and loss, but it stands in stark contrast because it was an entire life, well-lived. It wasn’t abruptly cut short but instead finished on a high note shortly after a family reunion and celebration.

I felt no regrets at his passing: he knew he was loved and cared for. I spent the last couple of years of his life using my annual holidays to visit and spend time with him (as well as explore other places). I had invested time in our relationship and enjoying moments together.

The week before he passed, we went for a drive down country lanes, with him as navigator, showing me where he used to go with grandma cycling as an early married couple.

Pain and sorrow:

While I spent the last years of grandad’s life getting to know him, I can’t say that I knew my grandmother well when she died in 1989 at 68. I had seen her during the six months or so that we lived in the UK when I was four-and-a-half and during their three-month holiday to New Zealand when I was sixteen. By this stage, we lived in New Zealand, and she and grandad lived in the UK.

Grandma died on New Year’s Eve 1989, in her sleep. It was a bad flu season in the UK that year. Since she had been feeling bad and coughing, she slept in the spare room that night so that grandad could get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, when he got up to make her morning tea, she had already passed.
For us in New Zealand, twelve hours ahead, it was already late evening when we got the news, and I was already over at a friend’s house for the celebrations.

The pain I felt that night and in the coming days was not my own, but my mum’s. For me, my grandmother was a close stranger, but she was mum’s mum. And mum was heartbroken. It was painful to watch her grieve while so far away and so helpless.

I feel the stark contrast to grandad’s death in 2007, when we were back in the UK visiting. At 86, he’d had a rich life, and we had travelled numerous times, as well as him having time to holiday in New Zealand. We had the joy of having spent time together despite living on opposite sides of the world.

I had no regrets as there were no words left unspoken.

Too young and yet gone gently

I recently posted about the passing of my Uncle Peter. Once again, it seemed that he passed too soon. Nonetheless, I have a sense of deep peace with his death and no regrets of moments or opportunities I lost or failed to take advantage of.

He knew he was loved and cherished, and at the end of the day: what more do we ask for?

When it’s all wrong

The passing of Uncle Peter contrasts entirely for me with the death of my “second mother” – Brigida. I watched her live through seven years of housebound, looking after a spouse who succumbed to dementia. His mental decline was rapid, but his physical decline took years. Eventually, she was looking after the skeletal body of the man she had loved without enjoying the joy of his mind and charisma.

There were many moments when she chose to laugh rather than cry while caring for Roland. They were comically tragic because of his dementia. Most of the time, he failed to recognise those around him, including her. In the early years, he was physically strong. However, his mind fluctuated between his University years, being a teenager and being a child.

Those years were the most difficult. One time, Roland escaped the house, butt-naked, and found the police announcing that he had been kidnapped and held hostage by a strange woman. Thankfully, they were already aware of his mental state and brought him home safe and sound. While she cried momentarily at his plight, she soon began to see the funny side of the whole situation. Eventually, we were able to laugh joyously despite the sorrow.

I cannot recall how many times Roland would complain about “that woman” that was looking after him and how awful she was to him. When she had had enough of his complaining, she would get up and leave the room, change her blouse and walk back in announcing she had fired that awful woman and come home to take care of him herself. It worked like a charm every time.

Do you laugh, or do you cry?

He finally passed in late 2019, and for a few months, she enjoyed her freedom. She took a holiday, finally, to Colombia with friends.

In March 2020, lockdown came to Panama.

For her, the months of lockdown were her undoing. After seven years of staying housebound, caring for a beloved husband, she couldn’t bear being housebound again. Within six months, she had lost weight and was just a shadow of her former self.

Then, unexpectedly, she had a stroke.

Unfortunately, hospitals in Panama were focused on COVID patients. Their priority was to send her home, to be cared for by family. Within a week, she had another series of strokes and was readmitted. Once again, hospital policies and resources focused on the “crisis” and “misplaced her” within the hospital. She spent the last three weeks of her life alone in the hospital, without a single visit from friends or family. Her family worried about her whereabouts and her condition without any updates.

Of all the deaths I have experienced so far in life, this has been the most heart-wrenching. Everything about it was wrong. I was left angry and helpless. At the very least, she could have died at home, surrounded by family and loved ones.

Dementia and decline

My mum is living with my dad and his decline with dementia. Thankfully, his physical decline has gone hand-in-hand with his mental agility, and she didn’t have to put up with a child’s mind in a man’s body.
In 2017, mum and I went on holiday to England. Dad didn’t feel up to the trip at that stage, as he had trouble with his knees and hips. But he was perfectly capable of staying home, with friends and family checking in on him.

By 2019, when she urgently needed a break from caring for him, he required care in a home, as he was no longer capable of taking care of himself. Over the last couple of months, he’s gone from knowing where everything is to getting lost in the house and not knowing where to find the bathroom.

We’re losing him in life.

Now, a shadow of the man he used to be, even if his body is still with us. I’ve mourned his loss as I’ve watched his personality and vivaciousness shrivel. Only occasionally do we still get to see his smile.

Harder still is watching my mum lose the man that has been her life partner. They’ve celebrated more than 50 wedding anniversaries together. More than grieving for my loss of a father, I grieve for her loss and pain.
This story ends in sweet sorrow. Mum and Dad got their happy-ever-after with all the ups and downs of life together.

My heart breaks as I watch this love story draw to a slow close.

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