Death and Dying, part 2


Another thought triggered by Tuesdays with Morrie.  I share this mostly as a warning to myself to be more in the moment the next time I experience the death of a loved one.  This falls into the category of hind sight is 20/20.

A few years back, I got “the call.”  If you have ever gotten “the call” you know what I mean.  Basically it is the recall message to return to your point of origin.  Someone is dying.

My Granddad had had three bouts with cancer.  This time he was in his mid-eighties and was too weak to withstand surgery, radiation, or chemo.  It was his time.

His intestinal cancer had eaten through the wall of his colon and now “stuff” was leaking into his bladder.  He was septic and in a lot of pain.

I took the next flight to Denver, hooked up with my parents, and proceeded to the hospital (200 miles from Denver).  When I got there, it was a bit of a shock.  My Granddad was about an inch taller than me 6’4”.  But when I got to the hospital, he was almost unrecognizable.  He had dropped to 134 lbs.  He was still lucid, though he did suffer from moderate dementia.

He was glad to see me and commented that I had finally “filled out.”  The family sat around and chit chatted.  Then we took out his old family album and talked about all the old pictures.

About an hour before we left, the doctor pulled my mother (his legal guardian) aside.  He was receiving high doses of antibiotics and morphine.  The doctor said that without surgery he would die in a week or so.  He also had a mild case of pneumonia.  The doctor recommended stopping the antibiotics and increasing the morphine.  This would ensure a peaceful end in a day or two.  My Mom discussed it with my Dad and I and this seemed like a humane approach.

They gave my Granddad the higher dose of morphine and he immediately fell asleep.  He was exhausted.  My mother also made “the call” to my aunt in California.

The next day my Aunt arrived.  We all made the 200 mile trek back to the hospital.  Granddad was only semi-lucid now.  The morphine was making him a bit groggy and he did not always make sense.  He was stoned.  The pneumonia had progressed.  He only had a day or so left.

The doctor came in while we were there.  My Granddad was still in pain.  He suggested increasing the morphine a bit more, but he said that he would probably die in the next day.  My Granddad’s eyes suddenly flashed complete panic.  In all our discussions, nobody bothered to let him know he was dying.  He just thought he was in the hospital again.

This is where everything went nutty and I regret not stepping in.  My Aunt asked to see the doctor in the hall.  She lit into the doctor and told him not to discuss his findings in front of my Granddad.  The family would let him know what he needed to know.  The doctor apologized and walked away.

When we reentered the room, my Granddad had settled down.  Because of the dementia, he had forgotten the doctor’s comment.  The nurse administered the higher dose of morphine and my Granddad fell asleep again.  My mom and aunt decided to take us home.  Everyone said their goodbyes as my Granddad slept and we started to leave.  The nursing staff asked if we would be back.  We said tomorrow.  And they looked at us with a perplexed look.  I did not catch on until it was too late.

My Granddad died that night.

Hind sight is 20/20.  Regret is a harsh teacher.  I regret that after the doctor broke the news, I did not stay and talk with my Granddad about his own death.  Although he had moderate dementia, he was not a child.  He deserved to know he was dying.  He deserved the right to cry and say goodbye.  I regret that I did not stay by his bedside.  No one should have to die alone, if it can be avoided.  I should have asked the nursing staff why they looked so perplexed.  Clearly they knew death was eminent.

I have so many wonderful memories of my Granddad.  He was a really good man.  I just wish I would have been a bit more insightful at the end.

I will know better next time.

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By Ben Posted in Life

3 comments on “Death and Dying, part 2

  1. I remember what a great guy your Granddad was. He was definitely one of a kind. I wish for you that it could have been different, but I know that he wouldn’t have wanted you to have regrets. He loved you very much, and knew that you loved him. I wish I had better words of comfort to give you. I guess I would just say, there are always going to be things that we could have done better, but we can’t change that. The last time I saw my Granddad, he looked about the same as he had. He wasn’t quite so tough, and had lost weight, but he still stood up tall and faced everyday with an incredible amount of vigor. We had a good talk, I had just gotten a really good job and was on a good “course” (which I am sure he had doubted would ever happen). Two days later he had a heart attack and collapsed on the table at breakfast. He was gone instantly. He was not a Christian. I had spent the afternoon with him two days before talking about things that really weren’t that important, but did nothing to try and get him to make the decision that would affect him eternally (and countless times before that). I had learned to just sort of skim over it. I always intended to talk to him. I guess I sort of figured that we would have that time where he was sick and in the hospital. But he was just gone. I felt horrible. But I can’t change what happened. I can only try to do better. I am glad that is what you have done. Regret may be a harsh teacher, but it is an even harsher bedfellow. When you learn from it, you can move on and let the regret go, but if you let it, it will move in with you and eat you up. I am glad that you have let it teach you.

  2. I’m teaching an ethics class right now and there’s a text chapter about exactly the kind of thing you’re describing, Ben. After first reading it my principal thought was that this kind of material should be covered in high school or in some basic college class. Most people are never presented with a chance to think about life/death decisions until presented with a real one. That’s unfortunate, to put it mildly, though it clearly coincides with our culture’s reluctance to address death and dying in authentic ways. For every movie that deals with end-of-life issues realistically, we have 25 heaven-fantasy or slasher movies. But your story about your grandfather reminds me of several of my family’s stories. And my dad’s mom is going to be 90 in April. I have no conclusion to this ramble except that I hope you won’t beat yourself up mentally about the past. I do that enough for several of us.

  3. I had a football coach once that said, “Play hard, when I see you in 10 years, I don’t want you coming to me and saying, ‘Coach, if only I….'” He would say “no ‘if onlies’ men.”

    For several years I tried to live my life that way in the real world. Then I discovered something, a football game is a “somewhat” controlled enviroment. Real life, for the most part, is not, as you and I have discovered. Things happen and we are left to make a decision in a split second sometimes and afterwards we sometimes end up saying “if only…”

    I was thinking, how do we give these kind of things to God? How do we lay something like this down, without picking it up again? The secret to this I have not discovered.

    My regrets make me feel guilty and make me feel I have failed. Maybe they should. Like you, there have been times when I wish I could take back what I said or say what I didn’t say. Or do the thing that hind sight makes so clear to be the right thing.

    The one thing I have noticed about regrets is that rarely are they repeated. What I mean is I may have several of them, but I cannot recall any two that are alike. Each are unique. In fact I can recall when faced with a similar situation that I do have a regret in that I acted in a right way the next time with an incredible amount of resolve within myself that actually surprises me.

    This is growth I guess. It is not pretty, in fact it feels rather messy. It is not fun and hurts like hell, but with each regret has come a measure of growth. One would hope that the growth would offset the pain, but it sure seenms not to.

    I wish I had better words of comfort, sorry.

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