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The Death Process

This past December my grandfather turned 100 years old. He has outlived two wives and two daughters. Surviving him are six sons, their children and many, many grandchildren.

It seems that Papa doesn’t have many days left before his soul departs from the body. I sat with him this afternoon. His naps are short and intermittent as he pops in and out of consciousness. His mouth is parched and his words come out as a whisper.

He has enough cognizance to be able to recognize me and give me a kiss. He struggles through several attempts to tell me that he loves me.

He doesn’t move very much or very well. He feels hot while we sit with him and thus tries to unbutton his shirt. I wait a minute to see if he can do it himself. He makes no progress so I unbutton the top button. He keeps trying to unbutton the rest so I help him to unbutton the entire shirt.

He says he needs to use the restroom. Because he is fragile, he uses Depends. He asks for a glass of water. We readjust his bed to an upright position and place a towel over his shirt to catch spilled water. I sit with him for an hour while he comes in and out of daydreaming and sleep.

Some have remarked they don’t want to get that old or to such a deteriorated condition. Some have remarked they would prefer not to visit in order to remember him in his more lively days. Despite this, innumerable family members march in day after day.

Yesterday a priest gave him his last rites. He was comfortable. He understood and accepted the rites. Last week staff moved him to hospice, yet no one knows how many more days his body will hold on.

Difficult questions arise. How long should his life be prolonged with the help of the oxygen machine? Is he ready to go? Are his family and sons ready for him to go? Does he fear the death process enough to cling to life or has he seen too many loved ones depart?

All of these questions flash through my mind as I sit with him. He appears calm and accepting. With each request for water, a Kleenex or to unbutton his shirt, he manages to whisper “Thank you.” I am touched by his sweet demeanor.

Just a few weeks earlier, I sit with him as he rests in his armchair. His mind vacillates back and forth between this world and the next. He makes three short comments throughout the hour which tell me that he is looking toward his next steps.

  1. My mother reminds him that Michael and I are getting married this summer. He tells us he won’t be around.

  2. A little later his eyes pop open and he says, “You only get one shot.” I tell him in response, “You gave it a good shot.”

  3. Finally he says, “Not much longer now.”

The mystery of when the soul leaves the body... I suspect that this time he is waiting for his family to be ready for his departure. His sons have arrived from out of town come to spend some final moments with him. He has slowly been releasing his possessions for several years. Now with each passing day he withdraws more deeply into the Self.

The death process is a unique moment in life to witness and participate in. For so much of life death seems only theoretical. One can intellectually understand its inevitability yet fill life with distractions to forget it.

As I spend time in the presence of Papa, death literally stands at the door waiting. His soft acceptance awakens a precious appreciation for each part of life: birth, growth, decay, death and the beyond.

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