Saying Goodbye, Celebrating Life

Last week my grandmother died. She lived a long, full life to the age of 92 and she died peacefully. The news was not surprising, but it arrived earlier than I had expected. When it finally began to sink in, I cried.

Then I wrote a few things in order to unpack and process my feelings – about saying goodbye to loved ones, enjoying them while they are alive, and trying to prepare for something most people don’t like to discuss: death.

Note: This is a personal story. But at the end, there’s some practical advice regarding travel, medical directives and handling the subject of death.

Celebrating Her Life

Grandma told stories of her life until almost the very end. And the great thing about Grandma: you could always count on her to tell you the real story of what happened, not the polished, diplomatic version that sometimes made the rounds of family lore.

She grew up during the Great Depression on a farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country and had dreams of being a nurse, marrying a doctor and living on the Main Line in Philadelphia. While she achieved the first two, life took her very far from the day-in, day-out of a nurse-wife on the Main Line. She lived, worked and raised a young family in Korea shortly following the Korean War. From there, she spent eleven years in Ludhiana, India before returning to and eventually retiring in the United States.

She knew firsthand that life was not always easy; she had a stubborn, can-do attitude that seemed to make just about anything possible. But her life wasn’t just about the ground she covered. There are so many people — and not just in my family — whose lives were the better for knowing her.

A Final Connection

My grandparents didn’t have a computer, so they never had the chance to actually see our website. While visiting them in Black Mountain, North Carolina this past May, we gave a slideshow presentation about our journey around the world. Although it was physically uncomfortable for my grandmother (and grandfather) to sit through the entire hour-long presentation, they did.

Although they had obviously known that we were traveling around the world and would get updates through my father, this was the first time they’d seen our photographs and heard our stories.

In the days that followed our presentation, I had several conversations with Grandma about the people she’d met while traveling around the world and in particular their kindness.

At one point, she relayed a story of an American in Korea. He’d had a difficult time there, particularly with some of the people. She looked wistful, stirring together her own experience and others’ missed opportunities, “I wish he had been able to meet the Koreans we met when we lived there. They were so kind and welcoming to us — they were the real Koreans. It makes me sad to think that other people don’t have that experience.

In the subtlety of that moment, I realized that she understood the fundamental purpose of our crazy journey: highlighting humanity, and the resilience, strength and kindness of ordinary people around the world.

Although I did not realize that this visit would be the last time I’d see her, I suppose I subconsciously knew the odds were tilted that way considering her age. Regardless, I’m glad this was never consciously expressed. Our final conversations were as they had always been: her stories ranged her entire life; her memory was sharp and her humor dry. She kept us on our toes and made us laugh.

And this is how I will remember her.

Regret Avoidance in Relationships

I have been fortunate thus far to know only limited intimacy with death. In previous generations – and also in many parts of the developing world today – a 34-year old with parents and grandparents alive might be considered an exception. I also understand that as time passes, I will no doubt become more acquainted with death. There’s little I can do about the loss, barring acceptance.

But there is something I can do now with the relationships I have.

We’ve written lots about pursuing dreams and living a life of regret avoidance (i.e., not wondering “what if”). I believe this same principle applies to people and relationships. I realize this may sound odd coming from someone who has spent much of her life living on continents apart from her family and many of her friends.

Having good relationships is not only about maintaining physical proximity to the people who are important to you, but also about sustaining emotional proximity. It’s about keeping communication lines open and reaching out when there’s a need – yours or theirs – to simply say “Hello. I’m thinking about you.”

My grandmother lived a long life with all her mental faculties intact. For this, I am grateful beyond measure. I am aware that illness and accidents can strike at any time and can take people away from us both mentally and physically without warning. Why is this relevant? There is no guarantee that the person you wish to say something to today will be around tomorrow.

In the best of relationships, this is sometimes difficult to keep in mind. And for those relationships on the rocks, even more so. Relationships have their flaws and are prone to hiccups. The goal is to be at peace with the relationship and to be satisfied that you’ve come to it as fully as you can.

And when you do see each other, focus on quality time. It’s a cliché, but I’ll tack on some specifics. Usually, it’s the time chatting over coffee in the morning or just sitting in the living room talking before or after a meal that means much more than running around the formalities, the “to do” lists, the scheduled events and the family photo shoots. For us, this is why we increasingly prefer to visit people outside of big holidays when the stress and anxiety of events can conspire to steal away the little things and the almost indiscernibly perfect moments of togetherness.

Final Practical Thoughts

If you’ve never broached the end-of-life discussion with loved ones — whether you are preparing to travel or live overseas or you’re already hit the road — now might be a good time. Talking about death is never enjoyable (well, at least not for me). But suffice it to say that this exercise is much more productive when all the parties concerned are alive and well.

1. Read the New Yorker article entitled Letting Go.

Yes, it’s long. Yes, it speaks frankly about death. But I highly recommend you read it and talk about it with anyone whose wellbeing and medical wishes for which you might someday be responsible.

My mother sent me this article a few days before my grandmother died. It really helped us all put end-of-life issues in perspective. It may also help you – and others — focus on what you can do now to ensure that your wishes are carried out.

2a. Draft an Advanced Medical Directive

If you don’t already have one, seriously consider creating an advance medical directive (or living will). A medical directive states what you would like done in case you require life support. Go beyond the basics and write down what you want done if you are faced with a terminal illness or you become incapacitated.

Something like this is easy to put off indefinitely, especially when life is grand and youth makes you feel invincible. But we have friends who have been in the position of making very difficult decisions for young spouses and loved ones because wishes were never adequately discussed or documented beforehand. The upshot: help your loved ones make decisions that you might otherwise have made for yourself.

2b. Draft a Medical Power of Attorney

This designates the person to make the decisions for you in case you are incapacitated.

Lawyers can help you draft both of these documents. However, if you do not have a lot of money to spend on legal fees and are a U.S. citizen, NOLO offers a straightforward, inexpensive way to do this for most jurisdictions. Download the software, fill out what you need and get the documents notarized so they are legal. Keep the originals in a safe place (e.g., in the safe deposit box of someone you trust) and store a scanned copy online somewhere.

Disclosure: We do not have any affiliate deal with Nolo.com. We used this software ourselves to get all our documents in order before we left San Francisco for the Czech Republic in 2001. I’m now reminded that perhaps we should revisit what we wrote almost a decade ago and be sure it is still in line with what we would want today.

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Comments

  1. says

    What a beautiful story of her life and the impact she had on you. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Your post had me thinking about my own grandmother. She passed away while we were living in Brazil. She was the one person who really seemed to understand our desire to travel and see the world. I truly miss her listening ear for all my travel stories. Condolences for your loss and thank you for sharing her memory.

  2. says

    Hi Audrey,
    I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. She sounds like an amazing women. I can see that travel and adventure runs in the family. What a wonderful gift she has passed to you.

    I completely agree that it is the little unplanned moments that are often the most personal and touching. My favorite times spent with my grandfather are when he is walking me through his garden explaining what everything is and directing me to what is ready to be picked. And then going to kitchen and helping grandma make a salad with the garden veggies. The older I get, the more I appreciate these simple wonderful moments.

    Sending love and strength to you and your family.
    -diane

  3. says

    Thank so much for sharing this. I’ll keep it in mind as I travel and make concerted efforts to maintain connections back home. My best to your family.

  4. Pete De Ritter says

    Dear Audrey,
    I am sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passing. I looked at the picture on the cover of your grandfather’s book of her on the runway. I paged through the book and looked at other pictures of her and your grandfather, your Dad and aunt and uncle. As I was paging through the book I came across this line, “We are happy in the Lord and, come what may, we are ready for our travel to Heaven – anytime He wants us there.”
    Now the perishable has been clothed in the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality and death has been swallowed up in victory. Praise be to God for a life well lived.
    Please extend my sympathy to your father and especially to your grandfather. You and your family are in my prayers in this time of loss.
    Pete

  5. Agne says

    Dear, Audrey,

    I am sorry to hear about your loss and thank you for sharing your grandmother’s life story with us.

    I have experienced a death in my family almost 2 years ago, and since then I am more aware of how fragile life is. I never hesitate to hug my mother, talk with my grandmother or discuss politics with my grandpa, because I know how important it is to enjoy our time together.

    I wish you and all your family strength,
    Agne

  6. says

    This is an important post. I love that you discuss the quality of our interactions with family and friends. I have many family members and friends who live on other continents, and there are many ways we keep good, real communication that I don’t necessarily have with people who live nearby. About your final practical thoughts– I’ve had them on my to-do list for far too long. Thanks for the reminder and for the link to the New Yorker article. This is too important to keep putting it off!

    I’m sorry about your loss. My grandmother is 87, and I know how special grandmothers can be. :-)

  7. says

    Dear Audrey-
    Thank you for sharing this intimate experience–and for reminding us all, whether near or far, of the importance of sharing with those we love. How beautiful your last moments with your grandmother. I’m sure you will cherish those final stories and be forever grateful that this chapter in your life story came to such a fine conclusion.
    Losing a loved one, inevitable as it is, is perhaps the hardest parts of living so far away from our families, especially as our parents and grandparents age. You have reminded us all that this is our time to hear their stories (as often as they need to tell them) and their time to hear ours.
    I’m going to call my mother right now…
    Cariños-
    Margaret.

  8. says

    Beautiful memory about your grandmother, Audrey, I’m so sorry for your loss. I love your story about her. The memory of her will always be alive through you :)

  9. Amy says

    I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother; she sounds like a special person. Thank you for sharing your story, and hers, so we can all remember to cherish our relationships with those we care about. And thanks for the practical advice, too. I was recently given some advice about setting up a health directive and am hoping to finally to do something about that soon.

  10. says

    Hey Audrey,

    I, too, am very sorry to hear about your grandmother. Clearly she had some impact on you and your life choices in the way she saw the world, and how wonderful that you were able to share your own travels with her the last time you saw her.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Besos.

  11. says

    Audrey-

    Thank you for sharing this personal story, as well as offering thoughtful advice that your readers can put into action. My grandmother died two years ago while I was out of the country. Like your grandmother, mine lived well into her 90s, though the sadness I typically feel with any loss wasn’t completely mitigated by the fact she’d had a long, productive, and, I think, mostly happy life.

    You’re excellent at practicing what you suggest here, too; I really appreciate how you keep in touch with others and how, despite your busy life, you and Dan always find the time to reach out and say hi.

    Thinking about you.

  12. says

    I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother Audrey, but glad to hear that you got to see her recently and share your photos and travel stories with her. I am sure that meant a lot to her and that she was proud of everything you have done.

  13. says

    My sincere condolences on your loss. Your grandmother sounded like quite a woman. Thank you for putting this post and the resources together. These end of life issues are so important, and we (as a culture) really don’t want to face them. Yet, we all will at some point in our lives.

    Thank you.

  14. says

    It’s tough. My grandmother passed away last September at the age of 98. She was worn of Italian immigrants and left an orphan when her parents died in a car accident. She was a tough woman and the cornerstone of our family since long before I was born.

    I, too, have had limited exposure to death and loss. With my grandmother, we had been expecting it for some time. I handled it well because she led a long and full life. My mom, who was very close with her mother, took it very hard and still tears up when we talk of grandma. Our culture is so afraid of death, but there are cultures that have entirely opposing views. I wish to learn from them, to ease my own fears of that great unknown.

    Cheers to your grandmother. Celebrate her life!

  15. says

    Wonderful post, though I am sorry for the catalyst for your writing. All in all, you shed some very insightful and meaningful things for people to think about. Travel is about self-discovery and finding a place in the world to belong, but some of the best things about it is also sharing the experiences with family and friends left behind. I’m glad you had the chance to visit your Grandmother again before she passed.

  16. says

    Audrey

    My thoughts are with you and your family. It’s never an easy time when someone so close to your heart passes, but for you to share how special she is with all of us,well I hope takes a bit of the sting away.

    While I haven’t had much exposure to death (touch wood) I have had an aunt pass suddenly while in middle school (18 years ago.) They say time makes it easier, but that isn’t always true. Perhaps it was because she was so young and it was a surprise to all of us–she was taken before her time.

    On a total practical (and not sob note!) getting a living will, power of attorney and all those legal things in place can ease the stress of those who are left to deal with death. When one passes and things are left up in the air, nobody really wants to step in and make those personal decisions. But if you have already decided how you want your funeral, etc etc makes it a bit easier for everyone else.

    Hang in there and keep on soaking up life. No doubt it’s what your grandmother would have wanted.

    Johanna

  17. says

    Thank you all for your heartfelt comments and for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers. It really does mean a lot to all of us. My father has printed these out to share with the family.

    This piece wasn’t really planned. It just came out as I tried to come to terms with my grandmother’s death; my original plan was just to save it on my computer and keep it for myself. I am glad that I shared it with Dan and then with the rest of you.

  18. says

    Audrey, I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. No matter how old or young, it is never easy when someone close to us passes away. Patrick’s dad passed away in March and I remember how much all of the comments people had written meant to both of us. There is something wonderful and intangible about people reaching out to help other people they don’t personally know, but with whom they have created virtual relationships.

    We started our journey to see the world but we’ve realized that what we are really experiencing are the people who make us happy, sad, and joyful. The static world is beautiful; it is the people within it who create harmony and happiness. I am glad that your grandmother and you shared that same viewpoint.

  19. says

    I am so sorry for you loss. I’m sending you a BIG e-hug. Your grandmother sounded like an AMAZING woman. I’m so happy she lived a long and happy life. Thanks for this poignant and thoughtful post.

  20. says

    Audrey, I saw you had this new post two days ago but I wanted to read it carefully, so I waited for a moment I could take some time to do it and I’m glad I did it like this.
    I am sorry for your grandmother and thank you for sharing your story.
    It is such a delicate subject and I guess when we live abroad it’s the most difficult one.
    I totally agree when you say: “Having good relationships is not only about maintaining physical proximity to the people who are important to you, but also about sustaining emotional proximity”. I feel like even living on the other side of the world I’m closer to my family and friends than other people who have never left. But when we start thinking about loosing them, this is just not enough.
    Last year a friend’s grandfather died and she wrote me an email saying I should go back home, because we had to spend more time together.
    We make decisions in our lives because we do not want to regret of not doing things we dream about, but we cannot stop and think about this or we will end up regretting these decisions too. I try hard to be always close while at the same time I am so distant, it’s very difficult.
    In the end of the day, maybe what we, travellers, really need is a lot of money, so we can go and come whenever, however and be with whoever we want. Or why not dreaming a bit further, a teleporter would solve the problem.

  21. says

    I’m sorry to hear about this Audrey, although I must also thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. Balancing our relationships with family and friends is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of long-term travel. It becomes so easy to get caught up in our travel goals that we just assume the connections we once had with others will always be waiting for us. And this leaves us quite prone to regrets later on down the road.

    You offer some excellent advice in this post and thank you for sharing that link to the New Yorker article. I had not read that seen that before.

  22. says

    I’m sorry for your loss, but thanks for sharing these stories. I’m glad you were able to share the important things with your grandmother before she died. My grandparents all died years ago, but I’m close to my husband’s grandmother who is 94. We have been collecting pictures and stories so that we can remember her better when she passes away.

    I also appreciate the link to Letting Go. I am very concerned about these end of life issues, but it can be hard to bring up in this (US) culture. I will have to make time to have a serious discussion with my husband about it even though it’s uncomfortable to do so.

  23. Hartini says

    Dear Audrey,
    I am sorry for you loss. She has a long wonderful and blessed life. She surely be missed. God bless her soul and your family.

  24. says

    @Akila, Andi, Cris, Matt, Earl, Jennifer, and Hartini: Thanks so much for your kind comments and sentiments expressed here. I feel really fortunately to have known my grandmother into adulthood so that I could understand her life better (i.e., through an adult’s eyes instead of a kid’s eyes). My grandmother’s funeral was last Sunday. I decided not to fly back to the States, but my brother read a revised version of this for me in my place.

    @Jennifer: I know from experience that these end-of-life issues can be difficult to talk about, but it’s such an important discussion to have. Good luck and I hope the article is useful. The author was also interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air on July 29 – that’s another medium to broach the topic.

  25. says

    My thoughts are with you – I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Thanks for the writing this article, Audrey. Always appreciate your openness and honesty in your writing. One point resonated with me: that you prefer visiting loved ones for casual encounters, not necessarily for big holidays where there’s lots of preparation. It’s true, at least for me, that it’s the magical connections you make with people in the little moments of life that stand out – those casual encounters that make an big impact. Gonna let that marinate a while longer.

    Thanks again, and sending warmth to you in Prague.

  26. rosie rosenthal says

    Hi Audrey. I just finished reading about your thoughts of your Grandmother passing away. It so true about quality time. I find when I ask my father about something he did or something that happened in his past, it becomes a special moment. I will call him after sending you this message . Peace, rosie

  27. says

    @Bessie: Thanks for your comment and sending positive thoughts. It’s difficult to plan time for downtime and finding time for those moments when visits home are short, people are busy and life seems to go by so quickly. But, when I think of the special moments with my family and friends from this last visit it’s those “unplanned” times.

    @Rosie: With family getting older, it’s easy to fall into the routine of talking about present health issues instead of asking those questions about the past or unique experiences in that life. I hope you had a good chat with your father and find more opportunities for those special moments with your father.

  28. says

    So sorry to hear about your grandma Audrey, and she’s definitely in a much better place now.

    Was watching Indiana Jones earlier this year and a quote that really resonated was one where Jones tells his colleague that “we’re all getting to the age where life takes more than she gives.”

    This is also one of the reasons why I strive to keep life a little more balanced. It can be easy to neglect emotional and family responsibilities for the sake of my own life dreams.

    My sincere condolences and thanks for sharing your deeply personal story.

  29. says

    @Lola: I completely understand what you mean about balance in life and making sure that emotional and family responsibilities aren’t pushed off for sometime “in the future.” During this last visit to the States I was thinking about this issue. I realized that if anything were to happen to a family member we could possibly drop everything thanks to our flexible schedule and spend the time needed in the States with that family member. That’s a comforting thought. Thanks for your kind comment.

  30. Paul Philpott UK says

    Hi, I have just read your story, I was just searching the internet looking for some comfort and advise as I am having trouble reconciling in my mind a few things about my Grandmas death last month. I had a very close friendship with my Grandma and I feel lucky that I am 36 and have been able to have her as long as I have. I have dealt with everything, all of her affairs just as she instructed and I knew what I had to do way in advance, we had that conversation and it could have been so much worse. Funny she was conscious about the ‘What If’ or as she said ‘If Only’ syndrome and warned me not to fall into that trap. I feel thankful that I listened even if I didn’t really want to. It is such an emotional time and I am still raw with pain at the loss of my friend my Grandma, that I won’t hear her voice again, or see her in her environment, I have already started to clear her home out, she always asked if there was anything I wanted and I didn’t see anything as sentimental except her, and now she has gone, everything is sentimental because it is familiar. I have written my own will this week because I want to protect those I love from potentially what could be a more upsetting experience without plans in place. I am considering pre-purchasing my own funeral now so I can get on with the rest of my life knowing the pain will be reduced for my loved ones. Something I always dismissed as macabre and souless. How wrong I was.

  31. says

    @Paul: I’m very sorry to hear about your recent loss and what you’ve been going through. It sounds like your grandmother was pretty incredible woman and did what she could when she was alive to help you know what to do when it came to her final days. I’m sure it’s comforting to know that he last days were as she wanted them to be.

    Congratulations on getting your will in order and making arrangements so that your loved ones can focus on spending time with you instead of worrying about logistics and arrangements. Some people find this morbid, but I think that getting this behind you allows you to think more about life.

    Thank you for sharing your story and I that you are working through the pain from your loss.

  32. says

    This is a beautiful post Audrey; I somehow missed it last year but am glad you linked to it this week. Wonderful that she lived such a long life right up to the end and that you were able to share your stories and photos…

  33. says

    @Shannon: Thank you for clicking through from the 7 links post and taking the time to reading this post. This post still means a lot to me. When we visit family at the end of this year, it will be the first time that I’ll go to North Carolina and my grandmother will not be there. While I’m filled with great memories of her, I know I will miss her all over again during that visit.

  34. says

    I’m so sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passing. I like the positive aspect you have taken from it and the beautiful memories that you have.
    A was only yesterday thinking of how lucky I am to have beautiful, supportive siblings. I only see them every couple of years, but I am very close to them and can always turn to them whenever I need to.
    I don’t think proximity determines quality of relationships either.

  35. says

    @Caz: It is wonderful to have supportive family members whom you can always count on. And even though you don’t see them often, I bet the time that you do spend together is so special.

    I was thinking of my grandma’s death as the rest of my family got together to commemorate one year of her passing over the weekend. I was sad not to be there, but then my father wrote that we each have our calling, and we’re “doing exactly the right thing.” It made me smile as that’s the perspective my grandma would have had.

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