the end of struggle

Posted by on February 6, 2008

Yesterday, my grandmother finally passed away. I say finally because our family was given countless false predictions over the course of the last few weeks that she would not live another hour, another night, and so on. But her organs, apparently engaged in a ninety-two year old habit of functioning, were more reluctant to shut down than even the most experienced hospice nurse could account for.

All week I was imagining them at work, laboring on the subconscious level of organs, yet attuned as ever in their long-established relationship of servitude to a steely will. She willed more time, and her organs gave it. They kept vigil, unlocked their dark room for her and cleared out a workspace. There, in the internal place behind eye-lids, I cannot help but imagine that, with or without the aid of lucid thoughts, she engaged in an intensive struggle on the foyer of death.

My parents would call and announce that hospice informed them she would not last through the night; this would be followed by a call the next day that she was breathing better than ever. Even while externally my life proceeded as usual last week, I was preoccupied with that internal room where I imagined my grandmother, her will, her organs, the angels, and also the demons, engaged in a final colloquium. It troubled me, and one night I got in bed with the chills, followed by two days of the common cold. Jeff had to go to school and I struggled during the worst part of my cold to care for Esme. At one point I resorted to an afternoon of lying on the couch watching Anne of Green Gables while Esme played on the floor. I wept inexplicably the entire way through, not just when Matthew Cuthbert dies. I knew I was really crying for my grandmother, and was relieved that I finally found my tears for her. I e-mailed my priest’s wife and asked her to pray. I tried to pray too, but felt feeble. Her battle with the demons seemed close and immediate to me, and yet distant and barred from me all at once.

It seems inappropriate to use a birth analogy, but I felt as if my grandmother was almost laboring in her death– in a particularly long and difficult labor. The remarkable length of time she took to die, past all medical norms, made it take on spiritual proportions, with spiritual complications. It began to feel like something quite tangled, as life is known to be, was demanding to be un-knotted through the honesty-with-self that is so painful. My grandmother had ninety-two years of entanglement with this life. I would think that some backlogging is inevitable in ninety-two years.

I know I have an active imagination, and perhaps a weird metaphysical bent. I am admittedly lugubrious at times. All of this reflection on my grandmother’s death, this worry, this getting sick, this mind’s eye picture of a demonic struggle worthy of a fourth century desert saint’s deathbed, could be, in short, all in my head. It could be a deluded spiritualization of a natural process at best, or a projection of my own fears about life and death onto the death of my grandmother at worst. But it has made me wonder about what we are involved in through being born and possessing a body. It made me thankful for a spirituality that affirms constant honesty with oneself and disclosure of one’s darkest self to another. I know for a fact that such a way was not provided or encouraged for my grandmother, either in our out of church, in all her faithful churchgoing life. In fact, I am certain that the opposite was endorsed at every turn– keeping up with appearances. I suppose this was at the heart of my worry all last week.

Yesterday, my father called to tell me that he had re-assembled an old crib for Esme to sleep in and it looked great, and that Gogo had finally passed away at 2 p.m., in that order. I did and still do feel a shift into lightness; I do sense the end of struggle and the hope of overwhelming, canceling mercy. Saturday I will take a plane into gold sun and green fronds and seventy-seven degree days; Saturday I will take a plane to her funeral.

I took the above photo two winters ago in Florida.

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  1. anna j
    February 7, 2008

    I am so sorry, Julia–but am also happy to hear that you seem to be grieving well, healthily.
    All my love and prayers,

  2. Jenny
    February 7, 2008


    Beautiful, heartbreaking post, and yes, birth is exactly the right metaphor. Rachel taught me to view it this way after Nate died, because when I was with her I felt as if I was attending a labor.

    And you know that there are death doulas right? As well as death midwives? They are usually people trained in natural childbirth who chose to devote their caring energies to those at the end of life, recognizing that death, like, birth, is a frightening process with many thresholds to cross over.

    And I also totally agree that our ability to be transparent and accountable in Orthodoxy perhaps eases that final struggle, because we are practiced (to some extent) at not holding back, at admitting our struggles to ourselves and to others.

    My prayers and love are with you as you go for the funeral, dear friend.

    I want to talk to you about this more–perhaps we can find a time to connect over the phone?

    I miss you!

  3. Julia
    February 7, 2008

    Thanks Anna and Jenny.

    Jenny, you did actually tell me about the existence of death doulas the last time I saw you, but I completely forgot. It’s a very interesting concept. I do think my worry for my grandmother was that simple fact that she had to do this by herself. I kept wanting a priest or someone to visit her and put unction oil on her forehead, at the least, but that was not possible, and it frustrated me.

    Anyway, I would love to talk, of course! When is the best time to call the middle of the Pacific Ocean?