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.


Sarah - Diariesofayangxifu said...

Sorry to hear about your Grandma, Rosie. I hope her remaining time will be peaceful and happy. I'm sure she was thrilled to meet William on your visit!

I have one remaining grandparent, and I have the feelings you describe. The day I arrived back she went to hospital as she thought she was having a heart attack, but fortunately it was a false alarm. It is difficult. But family would never want us to stay behind on their account, parents/grandparents miss us but are proud we grab the opportunities we have, as they didn't have them.

Sympathy to you and your family xxx

rosieinbj said...

Thanks Sarah. I hope your grandma is ok!

I think you bring up a good point about parents and grandparents just wanting us to live our lives, even if it means being far away. I've given some thought to returning to the US this spring to help care for my grandma but I don't think it's something she'd want. I realize this visit is probably the last time I'll have with her and I'm trying to come to terms with that.

Mary O'Halloran said...

Oh Rosie, this was such a powerful and emotional post. Thank you for sharing this.

I'm sorry to hear about both your grandpa and grandma. Living up to 90 is quite a feat, though, and it's good that she's still has a sharp mind.

One of my big reasons for moving back to the USA was for these same reasons. When I was in China my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the news hit me like a tidal wave. The guilt you feel for being far away from a loved one that is ill--it's really hard to shoulder.

Despite that, my father didn't insist I come home. He wanted me to be where I needed to be and cared about my happiness.

You're in my thoughts Rosie!

rosieinbj said...

Thank you for your thoughts and concern, Mary. I hope your dad is better and that you've gotten to spend time with him.

Jocelyn Eikenburg said...

This post really hits close to home for me. I've actually experienced two deaths of grandparents (both of my grandfathers) while in China; both times I was never able to make it back for financial reasons. It was hard knowing that I couldn't be there but I did learn to find my own way to say goodbye (through meditation, prayer and otherwise). Thanks for opening up to us!

rosieinbj said...

Thanks for commenting Jocelyn. I'm sorry to hear about your grandpas but glad you found a way to work through the grief. I think it's important to find a way to say good-bye and find closure because it can seem easier just to ignore or deny illness and death when being away from it.

martalivesinchina said...

I'm so sorry, Rosie. I've also been through similar situations... my grandma and my then boyfriend's mum passed away when I was in Beijing. I couldn't go back...

Constance - Foreign Sanctuary said...

I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Sometimes being a long ways from home is very difficult. I also lost both of my grandparents while in Taiwan. They were always very supportive of me and they always supported my decisions, even when no one else did, so it was very hard. I recently wrote a post about my grandmother because I think of her often, especially in February.

rosieinbj said...

@Marta and Constance, Sorry for such a late reply. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. I'm so sorry for your loses. It seems like most of us have experienced this. I think sometimes it helps to talk about it.