Monday, February 09, 2015

Dealing with death while away

One of the hardest aspects of living far from home has been leaving my grandparents. I've felt a bit of sadness saying good-bye to friends and family, but with my grandpa and grandma it has always been much harder. When I'd pull out of their driveway, usually a day or two before my return flight to China, I'd always wonder if it was the last time. I would say a little prayer that they would stay in good health and that before long I'd be pulling into their driveway again, hopping out of my car, and opening the front door of a home I've been visiting nearly all my life. But sadly, life and death go on and things never stay quite the same.

My grandpa's health declined shortly after I moved to China. I think he was suffering from dementia, and while he wasn't the same grandpa I grew up with, there was still comfort in seeing him even if he wasn't exactly sure of who I was. Whenever I came home, I'd visit him and my grandma, still living in a fantasy that things hadn't really changed. Then one Christmas in China, several years ago, I finished exchanging gifts with Ming and Ping. I checked my email, blissfully unaware of the bomb that was about to blow up my world. "Hope you have a nice Christmas," began the email from my cousin, "but I have some bad news about grandpa," she continued.

He was dying; it was kidney failure. His time was limited to mere days, not weeks or months or any amount of time that allowed me to prepare. All I had time to do was act, and I did, I decided to book a flight home as soon as possible. I flew back a few days later, arriving on the eve of my 26th birthday. My friends picked me up from the airport and we went out for cocktails. I tried to push the feeling of impeding doom to the back of my mind.

The next morning, my birthday, I woke up early and called my grandma. Before I got to say much of anything, she broke the bad news.

"I'm sorry, Rose. You just missed him. Grandpa passed away this morning."

I was devastated. I had come all that way and missed my chance to say good-bye, to hold his hand, to let him know that I was there for the darkest hour. I cursed myself for not going immediately to the hospital once I had arrived. But then slowly I began to accept. I was still going to have my chance to say good-bye. Maybe it wasn't the ideal way or how I had imagined things would end, but life and death usually don't go how you expect them to.

Looking back, I'm really grateful that I had the time and money to go home when my grandpa passed away. It provided a lot of closure to attend his funeral and to reminisce about him with my family.

Recently, I found out that my grandma is terminally ill with cancer. The situation is completely different. My 90-year-old grandma is with it. Her mind is clear. Until recently she was still driving and going for daily walks at the mall. While it shouldn't come as such a surprise, to learn her days are numbered is hard to fathom. Part of me was beginning to believe she might out live us all. But once again, I'm trying my best to make my peace with it. To enjoy what time is left and find a way to say good-bye.

Grandma, Grandpa and I (1985ish)

I'm writing this as encouragement for anyone who lives far away from loved ones and may struggle with leaving those who are old or ill. It can be scary to leave, I know. I've done it over and over again. You may lose someone close to you and the longer you are away the more inevitable that will become. Try to be prepared to say good-bye, perhaps in a way different than you imagined. If you are lucky enough to be able to go home to do it, I encourage you to. If not, find a way to seek closure through looking through photos, reminiscing, performing a ritual, or some sort of memorial. I think this can be one of the hardest things to cope with while living far from home and one that is rarely talked about. Please feel free to express your feelings or experiences in the comments.