Family, Loss & Grief

Dealing With Death

The heavy spring and summer rain showers have returned to southern Florida. It’s been a dreary, gray, rainy week here in my area. My outdoor flowers are dead, and I can’t enjoy the outdoors right now. It’s times like this that the Blues sets in and I think back on the loved ones I lost recently. 2015 was a year filled with death for me and my family. I lost three family members this past year; two of them were very important to me.

The first was my Uncle Frank who passed away almost a year ago last April.  Frank’s death was surreal for me because he wasn’t very old at all when he passed.  I had known him since I was about 5 years old when he married my aunt in 1985.  Throughout my childhood, he and I were not close at all since he did not care much for young children.  But after I grew into an adult, we became good buddies.  We spent countless weekends together boating on the lake with his kids and other family members and enjoying barbecues and pool parties at his home.frank However, Frank’s death wasn’t very difficult for me to handle because we all knew it was coming.  Frank had been sick for a few years, and in his final year his condition had quickly deteriorated much worse.  He was beginning to suffer, and none of us wanted him to linger on and suffer. It was one of those situations where you feel relieved when the person finally dies because their demise has been such a slow lingering one and you’ve had enough of watching them suffer. When I heard the news on the night he passed away at home, I didn’t cry.  In fact, I didn’t really feel sad at all.  Instead, I could not stop smiling and laughing to myself all evening long thinking back on all of the hilarious shenanigans he used to get into with us. I went out with some friends that night, and we toasted a few drinks to Uncle Frank’s memory while I regaled them with tales of some of the hilarious stuff he did back in the day when he was healthy. And I think that’s exactly how Frank would have wanted me and everyone else to handle his death and remember him.  Uncle Frank was always up for a good time, and I don’t think he would have wanted any of us to become mired down in sorrow over his passing.

I still vividly remember one particular shenanigan he pulled way back in 2001 or 2002. Our entire family was gathered for a holiday or some other celebration, and I suddenly remarked out loud about our family’s constant use of odd vocabulary words and phrases in everyday casual conversation. I think I said something to the effect of “Why do we always say ‘beverage container’ instead of ‘cup’ or ‘glass’??  Why don’t we just say ‘cup’ like every other normal person?  We should make a list of every weird word and phrase this family uses and make a dictionary out of it.”  I was only joking, but everyone else seemed to think that was a swell idea and charged me with the task of compiling a list to be turned into an actual dictionary. So I sat down with a pen and paper and wrote while my relatives listed every example they could think of, and then I gave the list to Uncle Frank. I didn’t really think he would actually do it, but about a week or so later my grandmother and I went over to his house like we often did. I had just sat down on the couch when Frank suddenly leaned over behind me without speaking a word and handed me a piece of paper.  It was five pieces of paper stapled together, actually, with an elaborate cover page.  I quickly leafed through it and saw that it was an actual makeshift dictionary of all the words and phrases used by our family, complete with definitions and examples just like a Webster’s Dictionary.  Neither of us said a word….he looked at me with a huge grin on his face, I looked back at him after seeing the dictionary, and we both erupted into howling laughter.  Looking through the pages of it, I could tell that he had likely spent several hours at his home office computer working on this little project. Even though he had a very high-powered job with Exxon Mobil that kept him very busy, he never hesitated to take time away to do silly stuff associated with the family. Even though he wasn’t a blood-related member of our family, he thought the world of us and worshiped the ground we all walked on. I remember how sad he was when my Grandpa died back in 2008. To this day, my family still has several copies of that homemade dictionary Frank made.

Several months later in late October, I dealt with another death that was much more difficult for me:  The passing of my beloved kitty Bailey. Bailey’s death was a bit of a surprise for me, although I knew there was a chance that it might happen sometime in the near future. I had adopted Bailey when she was almost three years old, and I had eight years with her.bailey According to my grandmother, Bailey had stopped using her litter box and had begun peeing on the kitchen rug for the last month or two. She had just turned eleven years old, which is about the longest that most Persian breed cats live. We had all noticed that Bailey seemed to be a lot slower and achy in the last year and wasn’t able to jump up onto furniture or anyone’s laps anymore without being picked up. But in the last few months of her life, her condition seemed to quickly deteriorate. She would have a few good days where she seemed fine, and then she would go back to acting as if she didn’t feel well. She began eating less and less, and then Grandma noticed that Bailey wasn’t able to sleep much anymore. She would sit upright and awake all night long as if she was unable to lie down and go to sleep. Grandma wondered if perhaps she had a tumor or something else developing in her tummy that was causing her discomfort, and my Dad speculated that she might be going into kidney failure since she wasn’t using her litter box anymore. I sent $200 in the mail to Grandma and told her to make an appointment with the vet ASAP to examine Bailey and find out what was wrong with her.

Then the situation quickly got even more serious.  Bailey went outside onto the patio with Grandma one afternoon and tried to run off to the neighbor’s yard. Grandma captured her and picked her up to carry her back into the house, and along the way Bailey bit her hard on the hand. By the following day, Grandma’s hand and arm were swollen all the way up to her elbow. Our family insisted that she go to the hospital, and she was kept there for three or four days while the doctors flushed her out with strong antibiotics and gave her some new blood and fluids. I was extremely concerned when I heard the news, and now I knew we had a serious situation on our hands. We needed to get Bailey to the vet as soon as possible to find out what was wrong with her before she bit and infected anyone else with whatever bacteria was in her body. But in the meantime, as long as she was there in the house with Grandma, she was a danger to her and anyone else she might take a notion to bite. Not only was I worried about Bailey’s health, but now I had to also worry about the safety of everyone else around Bailey as well.

The day of Bailey’s vet appointment came, and when I anxiously called Grandma as soon as I knew she and my Uncle Mark had returned from the vet clinic, Grandma told me that they had to make the difficult decision to have the vet euthanize Bailey. I was absolutely devastated that I wasn’t able to be there with Bailey to say goodbye to her and that I wasn’t at all prepared for this to happen. I spent a good two days holed up in my home crying over Bailey. Uncle Mark was kind enough to request a clay imprint of Bailey’s paws for me. I requested to have her cremated and to have her ashes returned to me so that I could intern them in a beautiful wooden urn that I designed and bought for her myself online.urn My entire family are all cat people, and it is known by everyone far and wide how much we love and adore our cats. One of my grandmother’s friends actually sent her a sympathy card for Bailey’s death. LOL! And my father, who is a SUCKER for cats and owns six of his own, also sent me a sympathy card in the mail for Bailey with a hundred dollars inside of it. Grandma and I were absolutely speechless when I called her and read to her what my Dad had written inside of the sympathy card. You see, my father is an extremely introverted, stoic, silent person who does not express many emotions and doesn’t speak much unless he feels like it. But on the inside of this sympathy card for Bailey he had written, “When a loved one’s pain and suffering ends, our begins. The repeated love/loss in life we experience makes us more human. Please accept my sympathy and donation for Bailey.”  Only the love and loss of a cat could bring such words and emotion out of my father. He does not care much for people, but he LOVES cats. The only time I’ve ever seen my father shed tears in my entire life was when Grandpa, his father, died years ago.

I was heartbroken that Bailey didn’t make it to move down here to Florida with me and Lexi. I had planned on going home for Christmas like I do every year and driving both cats back to Florida with me now that I had a bigger place that allowed pets. But exactly three weeks to the day after Bailey passed away, I suffered the biggest death blow of all:  Grandma suddenly died.

According to our speculations, she died sometime on Tuesday night but she wasn’t found until the following night. My Aunt Linda found her when she went over to the house to deliver some dinner to her, since Grandma hadn’t been feeling well enough to cook for herself the last few days. The last time I spoke to her on the phone was that Monday evening around 5:30 PM for about 30 minutes.  I still have the call log for that particular phone call on my cell phone….I’ll never delete it. As I recall from that brief phone chat that evening, she sounded tired to me. She hadn’t been feeling well for the past few weeks, and I’m sure that nasty infection she suffered from being bitten by Bailey didn’t help matters any. We didn’t talk about anything of much importance that evening, and I ended the call early because I could tell she didn’t feel well. She didn’t seem as excited to talk to me as she usually did. If I had known that would be the last time we would ever speak to each other, I don’t know if I would have ever hung up the phone. The next day, I went and got a really great hair cut and my second set of blonde hi-lights and went out on a blind date later that night. The next day after that, I tried to call her to tell her how it went and to tell her how my hair had turned out.  There was no answer, so I tried to call two or three more times later on in the day. There was still no answer, but I thought nothing of it because this was very common. It was quite normal to try to call Grandma four or five times in a day before reaching her, because she was always out mowing the lawn, tending to her flowers, or running errands. For a woman who had recently turned eighty years old, she was still very active and independent. I had no idea that the reason she didn’t answer the phone was because she was dead.

I was out with a few friends again later that night in a noisy establishment when I checked my phone and saw that my father had called and left me a voicemail at 9 PM. I immediately felt a bit anxious, because it was very unlike my father to call me at that hour of the night, and even more unlike him to leave a voice message. I went to the restroom to listen to his voicemail and see what was up. His message was very short and blunt and cut through me like a knife:  “Hey, this is Dad. Call me back later tonight after you get this message if you can. Your Aunt Linda found your grandma dead earlier tonight.” Upon hearing those words, the wind completely left my chest and I immediately ran out of there without saying goodbye to anyone and raced home. When I was finally able to share the news, my good friends Brandon and Traci came over to my home in the middle of the night to comfort me and stayed with me for a few hours. I called my aunt and my father to get more information from them about what had happened and told them I would be leaving on the first available flight out of Florida to come home. From what they could discern, Grandma had been in her kitchen fixing herself something to eat in the evening and getting ready to retire to bed soon. Either a massive stroke hit her or her heart just suddenly stopped and she just collapsed onto the kitchen floor. There was no sign that she had tried to move or get to a phone; they could tell that she was gone before she even hit the floor. It was just like a light switch inside of her had suddenly been turned off.

Now with the exception of when any of my pets die, I’ve always been someone who handles death pretty well. I never cry much when people die, and I just kind of silently take it all in for what it is. I even held it together pretty well when my Grandpa died several years ago. However, I did NOT handle Grandma’s death well at all.  This was by far the most difficult death I had ever experienced. After first learning the news of her passing, I sobbed for several days straight. I couldn’t hold it together during her funeral visitation, either. All I could think about was getting home ASAP to be with my family. Since I run my own business and am my own boss, I can easily take off from work whenever I need to. However, since I don’t make money unless I’m actually working, I always plan my leaves in advance to make sure that my bills and other expenses will be taken care of while I’m away on a trip or whatever. But this time there was no time to plan; I had to just drop everything and go without any idea of when I would be returning to work. On the final day of work before I flew up to Illinois, Grandma must have been watching over me because I made my biggest daily profit ever that day of $1,300. It was enough to put my mind at ease and not have to worry about paying my bills while I was away from work for an undetermined period of time.

Grandma’s death was extremely difficult for me because it was so sudden and unexpected. One minute she was here, and the next minute she was gone. There was no mental preparation for it like there was with Uncle Frank’s death. Truthfully, the thought of Grandma someday passing away had been on my mind more often ever since she turned eighty last summer. I knew that she was getting up there in age and that she wouldn’t be around for many more years. But still, eighty isn’t THAT old and she was in such good health that we all thought she would live well into her 90’s. Her own doctors always told her she would likely live to be 100. Although I knew she was in her final years, I thought I would have another ten years or so with her.grandma Her death was also devastating to me because she was far more like a Mother to me than a grandmother. She and Grandpa “adopted” my brother and I when we were kids and raised us in their home as if we were their own kids. She often told us that she viewed us as her own children rather than her grandchildren. I often noticed that many of my own family members would refer to Grandma as “your mom” when speaking to me.  Even my own father referred to Grandma as “your mother” when talking about her to me!  Of course there were times when she absolutely annoyed the shit out of me due to the fact that we were from very different generations, but I loved her like a mother.  She gave me the love, security, boundaries, and guidance that my own biological mother couldn’t. All throughout my life she was my sturdy, trustworthy Rock….ALWAYS there whenever I needed her. One of the first things I thought and said after I first learned of her death was “Life as I know it has now ended….my entire world has completely collapsed all around me.” At her funeral visitation, I stood over her casket and thanked her for all of the sacrifices and other things she had done for me over the years. I told her not to go too far away because I still needed her. Even some of my childhood friends from high school and college came to pay their respects to Grandma, too.  Anyone who had ever come over to my house to see me knew her and liked her.  She was very well liked and respected by virtually everyone who ever met her and not easily forgotten. If there is any consolation at all, it is that she died quickly and painlessly without any suffering at home in her beloved kitchen where she was the happiest. Although I wish there could have been some forewarning for the rest of us, I’d say she had the best and easiest type of death anyone could ask for.

After I moved away to Florida, Grandma and I talked on the phone with each other almost every single day for the next three years. And every year I would come home and stay with her at our home for a week or two at Christmas. The four months that she has been gone have been filled with a painful empty silence now that I can’t talk to her anymore. I still have many moments where I reach for my phone to call her up to tell or ask her about something, and then I suddenly remember that she isn’t there for me to call anymore. And the loneliness that sets in during those moments is crushing. I have a few old voicemails from her saved on my cell phone. There is one voicemail in particular that I listen to whenever I need to hear her voice. It was a message she left me one day after she hadn’t heard from me in almost a week because I had been so busy focusing on work. In her happy sing-songy voice, she chirped about how she hadn’t heard from me in awhile and that she couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer and just had to call me to catch up with me. That voicemail will remain on my phone for the rest of my life. Sometimes I cope by sending text messages to her house phone number when I feel the need to talk to her.  The number was disconnected right after her death, but I refuse to delete it from my phone. And although Grandma never used text messaging and wouldn’t have had any clue how to read and send text messages, I’m sure that she’s able to hear/see what I’m saying to her wherever she is now. There isn’t a single day that has gone by since her death that I haven’t thought of her, and I doubt there ever will be. I often wonder if she ever comes around me in spirit here in Florida. I hope she knows where to find me here so far away from home, and I hope she’ll make sure to somehow let me know if she ever comes around. I look forward to the day when we’ll get to see and talk to each other again.



1 thought on “Dealing With Death”

  1. Very moving write up. It moved me to tears because I could relate to each word you wrote about your grandma that I had to go through when I lost my father in 2013.. Hope your grandma is a much happier, peaceful and beautiful place now with a great garden looking over you.


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