Of Grandparents and Dying

September 25, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 1:08 am   Category: Ethics,Life

Of my wife and my five remaining grandparents, four of them are nearing the end.

One lost the will to live when her husband died five or six(?) years ago and as far as I can tell has been trying to die since then. That’s not to say she’s attempting to commit suicide, but she has mentally checked out on life. Once when my dad was super sick with the flu he said he thought to himself that if he just laid very still and slowed down his breathing that maybe he would just die. This seems to be her strategy. She let herself deteriorate through inactivity and for months now she has been lying in bed making no effort to get up or do anything (even to make it to the bathroom). This makes it harder than it would otherwise be on her daughter (my aunt) who takes care of her.

Another grandpa spends most of his time lying down on a bed or couch. He gets up every morning and gets dressed. He takes a walk a few houses down the street and back, after which he is wiped out. His only other exercise is getting to various doctors for all sorts of ailments. He had his first heart attack in his 30s and now he’s into his 80s, which is a testament to his disciplined diet and exercise throughout his life. His wife of 60 years takes care of him and the toll has been getting increasingly heavy over the last few years. Ten years ago they gave him a pig valve in his heart and I remember they said the pig valves have a lot of advantages over the artificial valves but they only last around ten years. At the time, no one thought he had another 10 years in him. I can’t tell you how many time I thought this round of pneumonia was going to do him in, but he just keeps kicking. He clings tenaciously to life and despite his decreased quality of living I have not been able to detect a weakening of that tenacity.

My last two grandparents are failing together, but manage to do well enough to continue living in their home. One has what appears to be Alzheimer’s disease with the devastating consequences so many are familiar with. The other has been getting weaker and weaker for months and was recently diagnosed with a huge mass in her abdomen. She was given six months to live about three months ago, but then (now) she started doing better than she had been doing for the year prior, so who knows. My parents recently moved to a home down the street and my mom checks in on them daily. I don’t have any idea how they feel about their lives at this point.

All of these grandparents are wonderful people who will be missed when they eventually pass on. I love each of them even though I knew some better than others. On a recent vacation, I got to visit briefly with three of them and I reflected on living and dying, as I am wont to do anyway.

Two years ago I wrote a post about euthanasia which had a mixed reception. I continue to think that it might be a wonderful thing if an ailing grandparent could call together her family for a last visit and leave this life surrounded by loved ones who had come to see her pass from this life to the next. I wonder if death could be the occasion for something more celebratory and bonding in such a setting. I can imagine the creation of family and societal rituals to accompany such occasions if they became widespread and accepted. Death is so taboo.

As I watch a person cling to life when their quality of life is gone and they have a long full life of accomplishment to look back on, I cannot help but wonder what makes death seem so terrible. Obviously, I have never faced death in that situation (and without dependents to worry about), but through introspection I cannot discover in myself a fear of death itself. I admit to wondering if fear of death is not a moral failing. In looking back at that euthanasia thread I see that I expressed a sentiment there which I have thought many time since:

What is so noble about hanging on to life when you are terminally ill and have terrible quality of life? Isn’t it clear that part of our difficulty in letting go of life stems from our lack of faith in the next world and our attachment to the things of this world? (here)

C.S. Lewis said one of my favorite things on this topic, which I have quoted more fully in a previous post. He wondered what would happen if old age did not force us to give up our tight grip on this life. “Have you ever thought what it would be like,” he wondered, if “the un-hitching from this life was left to be accomplished by our own will as an act of obedience and faith.”

The “un-hitching from this life.” I love that. We do get hitched to this life. As old age set in, Lewis said that the discomfort of old age was helping him “to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on.” I think maybe I’ll make a bumper sticker (or decorative tile?) which says “You can have my life when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Do you think that’s how we’re supposed to feel about life?


  1. I agree with you Jacob. But most people are probably not as pragmatic as you and I are. I sorta look forward to seeing what the spirit world is like. For now I can wait. For now I have responsibilities and people that kind of need me.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 25, 2009 @ 5:48 am

  2. Research shows that about 60+% of the elderly experience clinical depression before death. Physiological changes in the brain, new and greater stressors (finances, health, loss, etc) are just some of things our seniors face that our cohort does not.
    There is treatment. Seek out specialists for your loved ones. They can help.
    While I believe it is perfectly normal to “be ready” to die, I sure miss my aging loved ones when they focus on what they cannot do instead of what they still can. (Pres. Hincley was fond of saying that.)
    I also have often wondered if the difficulties we go through in “un-hitching from this life” are not a teaching moment to turn us back to the spirit component of our existence.

    Comment by mondo cool — September 25, 2009 @ 7:43 am

  3. I think I told you I met one of your grandmothers once Jacob — about 20 years ago. The one in Bountiful, UT. (When my buddy who is your first cousin and I needed a place to crash one night.)

    Anyhow, I am not sure what I said in that other thread but suspect the slippery slope issue is what keeps us from legalizing most forms of euthanasia.

    Yup, we’re all gonna die. I think we can count on that (hopes of transfiguration notwithstanding). Nothing leads me to think deeply about theology more than death.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 25, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  4. A problem is that depression and the desire to get unhitched go hand in hand.

    On the other hand, I was grateful that my dad’s Parkinson came to the end it did.

    Comment by Stephen M (ethesis) — September 25, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  5. Eric, agreed, having people who depend on you is obviously a game changer. You make a great point about being curious to find out what the next life is like.

    Stephen and Mondo, you bring up a good point about depression, it’s a terrible thing. We should make every effort to treat depression in people of all ages, elderly not excepted. I do think the desire to get unhitched can go hand in hand with depression, but I don’t think that it has to. I think Lewis’ point is that if we did not have bad things like disease, old age, and depression to encourage us to look forward to the next life, the gospel would still demand that eventually we realize that our real destiny is in another life, not this one.

    Geoff, I had forgotten about you crashing in Bountiful with my grandparents (from the post, they are the the last pair who are still living on their own but both doing poorly). It is simply incredible how many people have stayed in that basement over the years. They have been known to invite total strangers to crash there when they (grandparents) weren’t even in town.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 26, 2009 @ 12:53 pm