Sacred Spaces (Goodbye, Grandma)

This time, between they-are-here and they-are-gone, is not an easy thing to think about... but it's important to.

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My beloved, gentle, strong, kind, funny, beautiful grandma is dying, right now as I type this on Monday evening, this day before her 86th birthday on October 20th. This amazing woman has raised 7 children, and many of those years she did this as a single parent after my grandpa died at the young age of 59. Grandma has lived a life that’s included burying her newborn son, her husband, her sisters, her parents and many other family members and friends at different times in there, and she has inspired us all by remaining giving and hopeful all the while. Not to mention, isn’t she gorgeous, all Italian spunk and sincere eyes?!:


Despite many months now of declining health, I am so happy she made it to my cousin’s wedding this past weekend, there with all her children for one more happy celebration of love and family:


Now, in these final moments of her long, love-filled life, I am reminded again of our journey through Vanessa’s death last year, and the journey of everyone who has loved someone no longer living. This time, between they-are-here and they-are-gone, is not a common or easy thing to talk about, and I’m hardly an expert, but I’m feeling it important to dive into it a bit, from my own perspective, to honor my grandma’s present task now in my own way.

For a death that unfolds naturally, we tend to ignore this active time of dying, talking in hushed tones after the fact of last words and last breaths. We might wonder about it but not really know what happens or what to do. But it’s not as if a switch flips between life and death; barring a sudden and tragic death, there is a passage, a time, for the actions of dying.

We might even avoid using the word “dying” at all, as if saying it aloud hastens its progress. Yet it’s a real, human part of life, and ignoring the work and love that can happen in that time is a disservice to us all. So, as I reflect on how much I love my Grandma, and am in awe of her hard work right now as I type, here goes nothing with a post just bursting at the seams with the word, and act of, “dying.” I hope you will give it a chance.

The dying and the living do/can actively participate in the dying.

The act of dying can be *hard work*, for the dying. Of course a lot of the body’s action while dying are involuntary – organs gracefully bowing out on their own, and other systems frantically trying to rally to fill the void, not knowing it’s for a lost cause, but fulfilling their singular job anyway of trying to keep the factory running at all times. Even in dying, our bodies are miraculous feats of engineering!

But while this all happens inside, these failures and shutdowns and red alerts without any participation or effort on the part of the dying, it’s also true that the one we love is there participating, yet- reacting, feeling, adjusting, working. The world is likely shrinking for them with each passing hour or minute, to eventually a completely internally-focused one, but they remain active there too, just the same. Dying is far from passive. The dying participate in each step, just as in each step of life.

Visiting or being with someone who is dying can be difficult and, frankly, uncomfortable. This person you care about maybe looks different, or isn’t responsive, or is responding but in off-putting ways. A dying body can do some weird things, like snore and snort and flinch and change colors. It’s strange to witness and it disrupts the normal template you would use to engage; whereas before the script went, (1) see loved one, (2) respond with {hug/smile/laugh/greeting/etc}… now it’s super normal to (1) see loved one, and (2) freeze.

However, it helps us to remember that the person we love is still there, still them. As their body fades, they shift closer on the continuum away from life, but make no mistake that they are still alive, until the very second they are no longer alive. Thus being with them on that journey, as far as we are able to accompany them, is blessed work we we can still do, to honor all they mean to us. And bearing witness to their dying work, then, is as helpful as bearing witness to their work in earlier parts of life – the births, the weddings, the moves, the jobs, the parties, the struggles, the celebrations.

The dying are participating in their own death, and by supporting them while they do it, we too participate in their final chapter. In that, their end weaves into our middle and becomes a shared chapter in both our books, full of love and respect and companionship.

How to be with this person you love, as they make their dying transition?

The dying body can be touched with love, as before. Their hands can be held, their face stroked, their brow wiped, their body warmed, their shoulder leaned on (assuming of course these things don’t cause them pain). The dying loved one can be talked to, as before. The traditional theory is that hearing is one of the last senses to leave a person, and it seems perfectly plausible to me – making your (possibly one-sided) conversation one of the very best gifts. (And also remembering that they are still there, so making sure you aren’t talking above them or about them, or having harsh tones or arguing where they are.)

When Vanessa was dying, my boys came to visit her. At first they were whispering in the other room, but it seemed clear to us that if Vanessa could still hear, and her beloved nephews were there, she sure as hell would want to hear them! So we invited them in to talk to her. Here’s my little Leo (and Mom) singing her a song:

Leo singing to V

There comes a point in their journey where the dying must walk alone, where we can go with them no farther. Thinking that they make that walk with our voice accompanying them is a beautiful thought, to me. I imagine our words and our actions moving with the dying, narrowing too as their focus narrows, until ending finally, simply with the essence of everything, as they have their last moments of being… “We are present with you. We will walk with you. We are here. You have been wonderful. Your life has been full. We will be ok. We are grateful for you. We will take care of each other. You are doing a great job. We return your love. You are loved. I love you. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. L O V E.”

If you get to sit with someone as they do this dying work, to bear witness to their efforts one last time, to reassure them they will not be forgotten, to be there with gratitude for their impact on your life – well, you’re surely giving love and being love. In the end, to give this gift is to get this gift.

And you don’t have to be present in the room with them for that last breath to gift this grace-filled love; being separated by distance or situation doesn’t prevent your participation in the dying work. It’s not as if it’s a competition or that the only winners are those physically present for the precise moment of death.  (And the space for that moment should be reserved for only the most inner circle of the one dying, whatever the size that is.)

Just as life was many, many moments prior to the dying, the dying itself is made up of many different moments. Your part can be earlier on the road, or done from afar. You might be in an outer circle of love, but still able to help, by holding space for someone more inner so that they can hold space with the dying. There are many roles of support and love in this time.

The sacredness of togetherness: being there for each other

One thing that also strikes me about this time is the way a group of people can generate a sacred space in their togetherness. The weekend of Vanessa’s dying, the word Christina and I kept using was vigil, as in, we felt like we were participating in a vigil… it felt like we and Mom and Billy were keeping watch, staying present in this hard, hard moment to be a testimony to Vanessa’s living and dying work. We waited, to be her witness.

In a different way, today I am writing this post as part of a vigil from afar, while I know Grandma is working hard and my aunts and uncles are working hard; I’m trying to be a testimony to all that love and work, in this moment when the dying work is happening. The folks in the room with a dying person are in vigil. The folks in the other room, ready to take over when someone needs to take a break, are in vigil. The folks praying at home, dreading a phone call, are in vigil. The funny laughing exchanges between worried, exhausted people are also part of this vigil for the dying.

But what I realized after Vanessa took her last breath, was that we were there, in her dying time, just as much to bear witness to each other’s grief. I don’t just mean someone to comfort or hug us while we each cried, but literally as someone who was a witness to those first moments we went from caregiving and supporting, to grieving and missing. We were making space for the grief, in the spaces between us there together. All of Grandma’s children, my aunts and uncles, have been and are now creating a space of shared love and care as they sit and wait, and this space will be a vessel that was forged out of love and is strong and ready to hold their grief. Holding the grief together makes the burden less on all.

Sitting with death

There seems to be some great progress made in recent years to expanding the conversations and perspectives around death, but many still shy away from the act of dying- not only from talking about it but also from participating in any sort of way in the actual passing from life to death of those we most love. This is not meant as a judgement at all, but more an observation. Not everyone desires to be a participant, for their own reasons, and that’s ok. We’re all coming from different places, and can and should make different choices that are best for each of us.

But I hope that people don’t pass on the opportunity to serve this last final way and receive the benefits of that sacred space, simply because they haven’t allowed themselves to either think about it at all, or to see it as an option they are capable of doing. From what I’ve seen, both during and just after a death, there seems to be a well of inner strength that can open up to us at the very same time we are also falling apart. Allowing ourselves to summon that strength, and use it to help those we love, is also a gift to ourselves.

I believe the many rituals of togetherness after a death (a funeral, visitation, memorial service, wake, burial, etc.) all can serve very important purposes. But perhaps our ancestors who gathered at the deathbeds too, well before the last breath, to eat and drink and be together, were on to something that we’ve since lost. I truly feel for anyone who feels, for whatever reason, their only choice or option is to be alone while their grief is born. We are made to support each other, and be supported.

There seems to be so much benefit in freeing up others to take time to be with the dying and their support system before the death, in addition to afterwards. If more of us who have been there talk about these dying moments and the value that can be had there, I wonder if we can demystify this time for others. My wish is for everyone to at least be able to find it a choice they do have, to participate in the dying of those dearest loved ones, and/or be part of the sacred space during and after a death. Real “grief benefits” are available to us all in these times, if we allow ourselves to partake in it. I hope you might consider welcoming this opportunity, scary though it may feel, should it be available to you in your future with someone you love.

A good thing is that the death itself is but a small fraction of a life – all the living that came before it still holds the most weight, in the end.


Sacred space for the grieving

A phone call from Mom has now informed me that my dear, sweet Grandma has completed her dying work as I sat at my computer and have been typing this. I have no doubt that just as she did her living, Grandma too did her dying with strength and grace. I am sure she was working hard, like always, to complete this her final task in the way that best took care of those she loved so fiercely.

I hope upon hope that that sacred space is now welcoming my aunts and uncles, to share the burden of their mother’s absence, together. (And get some much needed sleep!) My heart breaks for my mom, who has now lost her daughter and her mother within a span of 20 months. But I’m also happy to have such a large family to remember Grandma with and mourn with, now.

Grandma's grandchildren in 2009

Grandma’s grandchildren in 2009. Add to the mix 5 great-grandchildren, and that’s a lot of love born out of one amazing lady.

Dear Grandma,

20080421-131Good job, you did it – and on your own terms, too!!! I am so very proud of you. I am glad your body can rest now, even if it means I already miss you terribly. Your story, now complete, is stuffed full of love and inspiration and laughs and overcoming obstacles with grace and class. I am so grateful for all the ways your life touched mine, all the stories you shared, and all the family parties you hosted as the glue that stuck us all together. I will remember your example of aging with dignity (and a little sass, when needed, to take care of business!).

Thank you for the rich family history I get to claim as my own, through you and your history! I have so enjoyed your big Italian dinners and your gowns from younger years. Thank you too for all the times you drove me around as a kid, and the many times you took us to Frisch’s to celebrate whatever the current special occasion was. As I have grown, you have shown me the meaning of making a family, the strength of the “tough broads” I descend from, and how to take all the curve balls of a life and still see life as good and joyful.

I am so happy that my children got to know you, too.

Now you join Vanessa and so many others in my heart, carried there for the rest of my life, part of who I am and all I do.

Grandma and Vanessa

Vanessa and Grandma

My dear sweet Grandma: You have been wonderful. Your life has been full. We will be ok. We are grateful for you. We will take care of each other. You have done a great job. We will always love you. You are loved. I love you. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. L O V E.

Jun 02 2012 13:28PM 7.453 ccc62e41,

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