All the Things that I Have Done

March 25, 2012

Recently, my brothers girlfriend Emily, who has been very close with her grandmother for years found out her Grandma was dying.  Gran had been declining for a while, which was hard on Em, and she visited as often as possible.  Toward the end, she traveled to western MA to say goodbye, but Gran held on for days and days after she left.  During the waiting period, family members from near and far who hadn’t seen or talked to Gran in years and years decided that this was the time to punch their cards.  They stayed with her for many hours during her last few days, and called Em telling her to come home.  “You should be here,” they were telling her.

Em got calls from the same family members (who chose the last week of Gran’s life to get to know her better) telling her to “say something” to her Grandma over the phone, while  Gran lay non-responsive on the other end, and various other things that made Em feel unnecessarily guilty for not being there. When Gran finally passed, Em was asked to give the eulogy, and was able to share with everyone the beauty of their relationship  throughout the last twenty something years, having nothing to do with the last thirteen days.

When my brother told me all of this over the phone one day, I felt so bad for her I almost drove out to western MA to yell at Em’s clueless relatives, but decided instead to write another blog post about guilt at the end of life.

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Making up for lost time can benefit some, but is it ever really the same?

Here’s my theory:  It is hardly the same.  Em’s family members felt guilty for not being there enough during Gran’s later life, so they sat by her bedside to make themselves feel better.  They weren’t able to see the reality of the situation, which was that Em had been spending loads of quality time with Gran throughout her active years, which was time that mattered to both of them.  It is understandable that they would want to make peace with themselves, but, instead of respecting Em’s own process, they projected their own feelings of guilt onto her, possibly to make themselves feel like they had done more for Gran at the end, which is something that happens all the time, but which is also wholly inappropriate.

Does the end matter?

Here’s my opinion: Yes and no.  The end does matter – lots of things can happen at the end of a person’s life.  People can make amends, emotional barriers can be crossed, and the dying person might feel at peace knowing all their loved ones are close-by.  At the same time, I believe that what matters most are the things folks do together prior to the “end of life.”  Everything we do in life is based on a choice.  Em’s extended family chose not to be close with Gran.  There could have been many reasons for this, but as far as Em knows, it just didn’t happen, and because most people are unaware of themselves and what lies behind their actions, they probably had no idea that the time they were spending with Gran at the end probably didn’t hold even the smallest candle to the times Em or anyone else spent with Gran in her seniority, taking her to Friendly’s, chatting, joking and just being together while it still mattered and could still be appreciated.

As Steven Tyler once waxed poetic, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.”  Which relationship would you hold in higher regard?  The person you spent quality time with during your elder years, or the person who sits with you for a week at the end, when you’re not even able to communicate?

When my grandfather was declining, he was in a nursing home very close to where my parents live and in a region where I work most days, so I spent a lot of time with him in his last several months.  I also felt guilty for not making more of an effort before he declined.  My mom’s sister and her husband had spent years taking care of him, and my cousin Abby went well out of her way to visit with him (and my grandmother while she was still alive) for years before the decline.  None of them were in the area on the last days of his life.  I was, but it was by chance, and there’s no way my mom or I would have called any of the people I mentioned to tell them they needed to be with him in his final hour.

The end of a loved one’s life is a difficult time for everyone.  It shouldn’t be made more so by projected guilt.

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Names have been changed for the privacy of individuals.

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