My fiance’s grandmother passed away today. We will miss her very much. Her passing reminded me of my own grandparents, all of whom died a long time ago. It’s interesting and maybe in its own way poetic that one of the gifts our grandparents give us is our first experience with death. At least for most of us, our grandparents are the first people we truly knew and loved who died.
One of my grandmothers died before I was born, and one grandfather died when I was two, before I can remember. My other grandfather died when I was twelve. My father and I drove all day to reach his nursing home downstate, arriving in time to see the nurses wheel a body bag out of his room. Seeing his face in the casket was my first experience with death. Kissing his cheek at the service was the first time I touched a body devoid of life. I’ve done it more than once since then.
My last grandmother died when I was twenty-one. She died in home hospice care, slipping into a coma and passing away over the course of two days. Her breath and pulse were so faint that we couldn’t tell exactly when they stopped. The hospice nurse told us to watch her fingernails. When they turned blue, she was almost or already gone. I held her hand and watched them blue and when she was gone, I wasn’t as scared of death as I’d been before.
Unlike cultures elsewhere, and certainly, societies of the past, ours is stunningly sheltered from the realities of death. We don’t prepare the bodies of our loved ones for burial or witness their cremation. Their remains disappear and reappear as ashes or clean, well-dressed bodies in silk-lined caskets. Death isn’t something we’re comfortable talking about, even though it’s the one inevitability in our lives. Maybe it’s because the American culture is one of optimism, the make-lemonade-from-lemons mentality. But grandparents give us the gift of a quiet truth: that everything eventually ends, that our parents and spouses and our selves will pass, and that the world will continue without us.
Rest in peace, Shanti Bansal. We will keep you in our hearts and our memories.