I arrived first, and was surprised at how quickly she had progressed: her eyes were clouded over, her skin color had changed, she was much thinner, her hair was shorter and more wispy; yet it struck me as well just how protracted death is. While this is certainly not my first experience with witnessing death (and will be far from the last, sadly enough), I spent enough time sitting in a chair by the bed, not only visiting with my grandmother (who remained reasonably alert almost up until the end) and other relatives, but also taking the time during long bouts of silence to reflect on how we perceive death.
I think our society as a whole has become rather inured to death, has been exposed to media portrayals and perceptions of death to the point where our social view is somewhat twisted. We expect a violent death will be dramatic; a sudden collapse, perhaps staggering-- pronounced grimacing, agitated movements. By the same token, we expect that a more traditional demise will be quick and sudden; that the soon-to-be-departed will speak fluently and coherently, then expire with a quick fluttering of the eyes, a dramatic pause (cue: swelling crescendo, then poignant melody, somber beat), and exeunt.
The reality, as many of you already know (and all of you will eventually find out) is quite different: dying is often far more protracted, and waiting is the name of the game. As fragile as our bodies sometimes seem to be, the vessels of our souls are also remarkably intricate and interconnected-- so much so, that the body takes its time shutting down, turning out the lights, and irrevocably dying in bits and pieces, leading up to the death of the individual as a whole. Sometimes the entire process is very quick; other times, it takes days, weeks, sometimes months. In this case, it was hours, but it still allowed for some retrospective consideration of death not just as an end, but a process.
You may find my commentary thus far rather removed and intellectual, especially considering it's my grandmother. Granted, I am sad, I am grieving, but since her dying was not instantaneous, it allowed me time to process my feelings and simultaneously indulge myself in contemplating death in and of itself. When I talked to my grandmother, she knew I was there- she responded from time to time. I knew she could hear me on some level, even at the very end, when she was already drifting into a coma, already not on this mortal plane anymore. But looking at her, even when she was interacting with people in the room, one could see the changes already taking place. Especially in the eyes...
Today we observe death through the filter of the media, through the veil of the clinical and medical worlds. Yet it was not so long ago that death was a social and communal experience of its own, and the death watch as much a part of people's lives as everything else. Only a few generations ago, people used their front parlor only for the most important social occasions, such as an honored or distinguished guest, a wedding reception, or a public viewing/memorial service, with the coffin occupying the place of honor in the room. Family members washed the body, dressed it, laid it in the coffin, opened the home for public viewing hours, sat with the body at all hours, and accompanied the coffin to its final home, whether in the family plot behind the farm, or the kirkyard in a small town, or a huge cemetery in an urban setting. Today, more often than not, the only remaining aspect tends to be the deathwatch and the funeral itself. Even within those boundaries, there are additional strictures: in a hospital, nursing home, or hospice, there may be medical personnel, officials, and the like in between the family and the dying. At the funeral, the clergy, the funeral director, and the cemetery personnel are the ones who assume the burden, injecting another layer of security within the entire final acts of a person's life.
While there are pros and cons for these changes, overall, I think it just adds to the clinical distance our society has instituted regarding death, and I'm not necessarily sure that's a good thing. Death is already mysterious enough that I don't think we need to wall it off even further.
As for me, I spent part of my final visit saying my goodbyes, and the other part reminiscing, mentally visiting the land of Used to Be; the places, people, and experiences that are more and more entering a world of their own, exisiting only in my memory.
As more family members arrived, and others maintained contact from afar, I thought about my relationships with everyone, my experiences with them, and how they were interacting at the moment. Even though the final experience, the actual act of death itself, is one that we each experience all alone, the process of dying varies. At its best, it's about family. In that respect, I believe my grandmother had a good death. The people she loved and cared about most were with her in her final hours of lucidity, and sat by her side as she made the transition from being to ceasing to be. I hope I'm equally fortunate to be surrounded by love when my time comes.