|This is a 1948 picture of my father, just a year old |
at the time, and grandmother, taken while they
were on vacation at a lake in Ely, Minnesota.
I actually hadn't seen my grandmother for four years. I last visited Virginia in December 2008, when she was already suffering from dementia and was living with my aunt and uncle because she could no longer care for herself. Even then, she could recall people and events from 50 years ago, but couldn't remember what you had told her 10 minutes ago.
In the years since, her cognitive decline continued at a slow but steady rate. When my father visited her for the second-to-last time in October — when it wasn't yet known that the end of her life was so near — he discovered that she could no longer remember her husband of 46 years, who passed away on Christmas Eve in 1992.
I'm still too young to have had much experience with the death of loved ones. Twenty years ago, when my grandfather died, I remember not fully grasping the concept of death but feeling profound sadness nonetheless just because I observed the grief of everyone else, including my grandmother, who had just lost the love of her life.
Don't get me wrong — I knew what death was, of course. But its gravity was a bit too much for my young psyche to comprehend.
Admittedly, even now, the notion of the decline of earthly life is tough for me to conceptualize. By any standard, I'm at the peak of my physical and mental health and ability. I've not yet begun to experience arthritis or other physical problems that eventually come with aging. And the idea of ever losing my memory or intellectual autonomy — or the ability to perform basic functions that require cognitive capacity, like driving a car — is extraordinarily difficult to entertain.
But it happens to everyone. Life has its seasons. While I still find myself in the late spring or early summer, when growth and possibility abound, my grandmother just departed from her late autumn, when there are still glimpses of profound beauty, but it's clear that change is on its way — the kind that requires letting go of old things to make room for the renewal that inevitably follows the death and darkness of winter.
Earlier this year, my father gave a presentation at his church in which he beautifully illustrated this concept, using a personal story from his experience with the death of his own father — my grandfather — 20 years ago. This is what he said:
My dad was showing obvious signs of discomfort and struggle. We called for a nurse and asked if anything could be done to relieve his pain. She assured us that he couldn’t possibly be feeling any pain because he was in a deep coma and heavily sedated. The symptoms we were observing, she told us, were simply the automatic resistance of his body to the approach of death; it had nothing to do with pain.Indeed we do. That's true not just in physical death. It's true in various scenarios in our earthly lives, where we desperately hold on to old things that stifle growth — often for no reason other than that we know what's already visible or present, and we fear what we don't yet know or can't yet see, even though it may be the source of incredible growth, beauty, and restoration.
When the nurse had left the room, my sister left her seat, approached the bed, and held my dad’s hand. “You have to let go, dad,” she said. “We’re all here and we’re okay and we’ll continue to be all right. You just need to let go.”
Almost immediately, the symptoms of struggle that we had been observing ceased, and the beep of the heart monitor began to slow up. Within an hour, that sound ceased altogether.
This is a wedding picture of my grandmother and
grandfather from 1946, about a year after he returned
from his tour of duty in Europe during World War II.
Dad let go and found himself at peace in the arms of God who, of course, had been there all along. What happened was, for me, a powerful testimony to the fact that the brain and the soul are not the same thing. The brain may be in a deep coma, but the soul can still hear and respond to a loving voice.
…My dad needed to move on. His fight with cancer was over; his time in this life was at an end. It was necessary for him to move on to a new life. However, he continued the struggle to hold on. He refused to let go, until someone who loved him gave him the assurance that he could and should do so.
At times, I think that’s true of all of us. We stubbornly hold on to things that keep us from moving toward the loving embrace of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
I've written about this before, and I truly believe it. That's why I confront my grandmother's death with a great deal of sadness, but also with a profound sense of comfort. I know that she's now in a better place, where there are no tears, pain, or suffering, and where her memory is fully restored and physical ailments eliminated. The realities that caused her grief in this world — including time itself, which created increasing distance between her and her departed loved ones — are now irrelevant. She's whole again.
Her husband — a World War II veteran who helped liberate Dachau concentration camp in Germany — is again by her side. So is her son, my dad's brother and my uncle, who passed away at a young age from stomach cancer in 1988. So is her sister, who died in 2006.
Often, those who face the loss of a loved one respond by wishing and praying that the person would "rest in peace." Having had such an experience myself, the phrase carries greater meaning for me. It's an acknowledgement that physical death involves leaving behind the difficulties of this ephemeral world that prevent rest or peace — and moving on to a place of paradise that offers both in unlimited, eternal abundance.
That's where my grandmother and other loved ones are now. And that's why my family can take solace in this time of mourning.