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.