As I have grown older and dealt with the death of close family members as well as some friends, it has struck me how differently people deal with the prospect of death—even though it’s something that comes to all of us. There are those who die suddenly and/or tragically before their time, but among people who have a longer off ramp to the process, some “rage against the dying of the light,” some go in fear and even denial, and others let the tide go out gently. Some are willing to talk about it (clearly I’m in that category) and others are not.
Even though my family examples are mainly of those who lived long and full lives, their stories vary. My maternal grandmother, who once opined that “when people die, they just die,” did exactly that. After a short period of failing health when she was in her 90s, she was admitted to the hospital on a Thursday, and died that Sunday. She also seemed unafraid to confront the prospect of death. My mother and her sisters were in horror at one Sunday gathering when, as my arthritic paternal grandfather sat down with difficulty beside her, my grandmother asked him bluntly, “Now, Mr. Hennigar, how old are you going to be on your next birthday– if you live until then?”
My mother, on the other hand, lingered in a nursing home for nearly two years, wasting away. In the years leading up to her death, I could tell that she was terrified—she did not want to speak of even the prospect of dying. My father, also in a nursing home in his last year of life, was much more accepting. About six weeks before his death, he took my hand in his and said simply, “Darling, I’m dying. I just can’t put anything in my body, any more.” The day before he died, the distinct smell of macaroni and cheese—my favorite dish as a child—wafted through his room, even though it was mid -afternoon and nothing like it had been on the lunch menu that day. I took this as a sign that my mother had arrived and wanted me to feel her presence, as well. My dad went calmly and peacefully the following morning.
But perhaps the person from whom I learned the most was my paternal grandfather, who died when I was 29. I had a very close relationship with him, and although two of my other grandparents had died when I was younger, I was at an age when my world construct had evolved to be open to the more spiritual aspects of life.
In his mid-80s, my grandfather developed a heart blockage, and we took him to the University of Michigan hospital for one of the very first pacemakers to be installed in a patient–-his surgery was even filmed by the U-M medical school. In those days, pacemakers were clunky objects that protruded from the chest, and had to be replaced every few years. My grandfather lived to have two such replacements before dying from natural causes at 95. The first replacement went well, but during surgery for the second, something went wrong, and my grandfather’s heart stopped during the procedure.
When he got out of the hospital, he seemed both excited and sobered. It turned out that during the time his heart stopped, he had had an out of body or near death experience. These were not well publicized at the time, as they are now. He wanted to talk about it. My parents seemed oddly dismissive, but I was fascinated. He described the things that many people who have had these experiences relate—a warm white light, a loving presence, the sense of other beings who had passed before him, an overwhelming peace. “I have lost any fear I had of death,” he pronounced. “If that is the place I am going, it is a wonderful place to be.”
A few years later, just weeks before he died, I visited him in the nursing home—I was home from Tokyo, Japan, where I was then living. He was not able to speak much, but he kept talking about needing “to get around the corner.” Over the next few weeks, I had a series of dreams in which my grandfather was wandering in a black and white forest, just out of reach of a lush green area of trees and fields. I could see the whole vista in the dream, but realized that he could not. His physical condition continued to deteriorate and he lapsed into a coma. On a mid-August Saturday morning in Tokyo, I woke with a violent start and sat up in bed. A few minutes later, the phone rang—my father was calling with the news that my grandfather had just died, almost at the exact moment that I awoke so suddenly.
In the weeks that followed, I had a few more dreams—in one, my grandfather’s eye was a vivid blue orb that pulsed a beautiful light. At some point, the dreams stopped, and my own process of mourning my grandfather’s death moved along, as well. I have not thought of this time in many years, nor have I felt my grandfather’s presence as I did then, yet I realize that these memories form a kind of backbone in my construct of death. Of course, from this side of the divide, there is nothing we can know for certain. But the famous words of Hamlet come to mind: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”