My family and I received some bad news from my grandparents’ doctor about a month ago - my grandpa was diagnosed with stage 3 bone cancer. This was a long-awaited answer to the question of his increasingly intense pain, and a dreaded end-of-life circumstance for those of us who love him so much. My brother, sister-in-law, and I booked plane tickets to Wisconsin as soon as we could, so that’s where I was this week.
I had no idea what to expect, even though I knew exactly what was happening. All that we experienced this week (and for my parents, the last month) was challenging beyond belief, but we wouldn’t have traded that time with him and my grandma for the world. And now I’d give my entire world to have more time with them both.
We had a difficult time finding 24-hour care and sorting through the details of that, nursing homes, assisted living, and many other palliative care options, so while we sorted, we provided the care. We had no idea what we were doing because… well, we are not nurses, but we came together and gave him our everything. Friends and family who knew about the situation sent us their love, prayers, thoughts, and most comforting words. They asked how we were doing, and I think I can speak for us all when I say it’s an indescribable feeling.
One night, when everyone had gone to sleep, I wrote. I just let my hands go and here’s how my heart describes everything. Disclaimer - if you’ve lost a loved one to cancer, this may be triggering. Proceed with caution.
This is one of those things life doesn’t prepare us for. It’s terrifying, yet it’s inevitable. It’s painfully tense, yet it’s quietly peaceful. It’s natural, yet it’s uncomfortable. It’s heart-breaking, yet it’s heart-warming. It’s like everything you try to prepare yourself for, yet it’s completely different.
To know that a loved one’s life is going to end. To hear them say they’re ready for the end whether you are or not. To watch them decline, slowly at first over the years, and then quickly at the end hour by hour. To look into their glossy eyes and see right past the pain and medication and disease and into the person you know and love and will forever remember. To tell them it’s okay, that we are all here, that they can go now.
It’s the most indescribable experience.
People tell you to hold family close, and you do, but that’s one of the places tension grows. They also tell you to remember all the good moments, but you’re stuck in reality. All these people are just trying to help because they love you, and none of their comforting words and pieces of advice are wrong. It’s just…
Well, it’s really damn hard. I get it.
You want them to be comfortable, but they’re writhing in pain and the ten medications are running out and it’s 11 PM. You want to hold onto little moments of joy in all the madness and sadness, but you almost feel a little guilty doing so. You want to sleep, but you can’t because if you do for just two minutes it could all be different. You want it to be over, but then you question if that makes you a bad person because when it’s over, that means death and an empty place in the house.
You just want to know what the hell you’re doing. But you don’t and you won’t because I don’t think death gets any easier, and clearly there’s no handbook for it. This is the first one I’ve worked through and, given the amount of loved ones I’m blessed with, I don’t suspect it to be the last. Death is hard because we love people and we don’t want to see them go. We don’t want the love to dissolve into thin air and once that person is gone, where else is it going to go? I ask that question, too.
But let me tell you something that might make this a little easier. Take that love that you shared with that person - it’s special, it’s as long and enduring as forever. Don’t let it dissolve. Give all that you can to that person while you have them, and then give the rest out because we all need it. Your loved one may be in excruciating pain and may look like the best and only candidate for that special love, but look around the room. Look around the hospital or nursing home or wherever you are and see everyone else (and their families and friends) who need it, too.
My grandpa loved my family miles beyond what I can fathom, and I saw that in his last few days. He held on for us all, and though I wanted him to go so that his pain would stop, I also wanted the special moments to last a lifetime - when he’d reach for my hand, squeeze it tight, and bring it to his lips for a kiss; when he’d reminisce with us back to his childhood and old friends; when he’d turn over in his bed and bring my grandma closer to his side; when he’d look at me, as best he could, and say “I love you”; and so many more. He was exhausted, but he hung on for every cherished moment he had with us and I will never be able to thank him enough for that.
I saw love all around me this weekend. It was in the way my grandma looked at him and stroked his arm. It was in the way my family gave our everything to care for them both. It was in the words and the care the hospice team provided. It was in and around and all for my grandpa.
Breath may stop and life may disappear, but love lives on. Let it live on in memory of your loved one.