On Witnessing Death and the Calm that Follows

A few weeks ago, on November 30th, to be precise, I packed up a few birthday gifts and headed out to Maryland to visit my grandmother. I had seen her a few weeks before, for her 91st birthday celebration, while my mother and sister were visiting the east coast. She had moved to Maryland from her home in sunny Florida five years prior to be closer to my aunt as she got older.


I stopped along the way to her assisted living facility to pick up hot chocolate for us to share. At the entrance of the building, I greeted the woman at the front desk and took the elevator to her room on the fifth floor. The door was slightly cracked, so I pushed it open – and I felt the normal hot and humid climate of her room, which without fail caused me to doze off during every visit. She was stretched out on the couch and appeared to be asleep. I tiptoed to not wake her too suddenly. Yet, as I gently said “grandma, hello,” she didn’t respond to my voice. I gently touched her arm and face – my mind reaching to grasp the notion of what I was seeing, of what was happening. I put my fingers on her neck, attempting to take her pulse. Although she was warm to the touch, her arm already had a certain stiffness to it and I noted a blueish-purple color on her finger nails.


As I began to understand what was happening, my reaction was calm. No other reaction seemed possible while standing over her – her eyes closed and her lips in a soft smile. I was there to bear witness to her process of death and to be present in those moments. No need for hurried action crept into my mind.


The hours that followed were as one who considered the process of death expects. First, EMTs arrived to pronounce her dead, following by police officers to record reports of what happened. Meanwhile, the facility’s staff milled around telling me how much they enjoyed my grandmother and how they were surprised by my calmness. Their faces expressed that look – the one where people expect you to panic and sink to the floor sobbing at any moment, which to be fair – may be a more appropriate response. I made phone calls to family, first to my uncle, then to my mother. I oscillated between sitting on a chair next to her body, which was still on the couch and her bedroom as I fielded calls from family. It is important for people to hear the story of what happened, and in this case to hear that sense of peacefulness her death took on. For some reason, it felt inappropriate to discuss what was occurring with her body in the room, perhaps since it seemed too early to really process what had happened, while it was still happening. So, I closed the door to her bedroom, as if to not let her hear what I was talking about on the phone. I felt like I needed to keep the room as quiet and peaceful as possible.


After a few hours of silence, only interrupted by questions from police officers, the funeral home arrived to move her. I felt at once grateful that a system exists when someone dies, that you fall into. There is a process and people explain what is going to happen, which always feels comforting. On the other hand, the process feels impersonal (which makes sense, since the process is designed for everyone, therefore, it is not personal). The men from the funeral home removed her wedding rings, placing them in my care – and lifted her onto a gurney, which barely appeared difficult. Every few minutes someone asked me if I wanted to go in the other room or outside so I wouldn’t have to watch. Standing there, watching the processes of death take place seemed to be the least I could do. Shying away from the last moment with my grandmother and the last moments of her care, only felt like turning my back on her and a process that so many people do out of discomfort. It occurred to me strange that there are options for simply not being involved; for walking away. This decision of course varies based on the situation, and reminded me of the decision I made not to view my father’s body when I had the opportunity. Instead, I wanted to walk forward, to engage, in the logistics and the process of dying.


In my experience, death has this aura of why me? Why is this happening? How could this happen?. So many unanswered questions, which really don’t need or have answers, even though we search for them. Most of us will experience the loss of a loved one, and for many of us this will take place – if we are lucky – inside a care facility at the end of a long life. While, this experience, differed so much from the suddenness of my father’s death, I was left with much the opposite sense of that loss. Instead, I felt the pull of a voice that said yes, me, I should be here. After months of putting off visiting my grandmother one on one, I had finally made the trip that day and that specific time – only to walk in minutes after she passed away. The timing feels significant (but, so do so many things surrounding death), and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to witness the process and hopefully, be there for her for the last time.


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