I was fortunate in the eyes of many people to know my four grandparents well. Each had a profound impact on me, and I often wonder about this as part of their legacy. At other times I reflect on their last moments of life, all of them long lives. How would they have been feeling? How would those closest to them at the time have been feeling? What were they seeing? What happened right then as last breaths were drawn? Then, in hindsight, I was somewhat bizarrely shielded from it all. For my protection? Or the protection of others?
My grandparents taught me much, and shaped my views on many matters of significance. Papa was a grazier, and taught me how important it was to leave the land in better condition than we found it. He showed me first hand life and death on the land. In the end, his body had simply had enough. Before he died he took me to the graves of our ancestors. I didn’t realise it then but I think he was trying to teach me something. Nana suffered indignity for too long. Unnecessarily so. Her body let her down to the point where by the end her quality of life was sadder than death. I must be able to learn from that. Grandad was a soldier but I remember a gardener and a generous soul. My own gardening skills came too late to be influenced by anything other than memories of him. Fortunately I am unlikely to ever be a soldier. Gran outlived them all. A matriarch, from her I learnt that there comes a time in life when we need to stop looking upwards through the family tree and turn our attentions downwards to another generation.
How lucky I was to be able to learn from their collective wisdom. And yet, what have I learned about death and grief? I know I don’t much enjoy it, am not great talking about it, but that we can’t avoid it. In the end it comes to us all. It seems we spend a lifetime building up our personal resilience. As we watch our friends and family pass and we draw closer to our own inevitability we become more comfortable with it. But from what I’ve seen, the decision makers when it comes to end-of-life do not always possess such life experience.
The capacity to learn is a great human characteristic – part of what makes us intelligent. The problem is that learning is inherently biased. Why else do we block out some thoughts, refuse to acknowledge and talk about death, and then have to deal with grief in our own ways?
I learned much while they were alive but wish I’d learnt more from their lives and their deaths. We spend our own lives trying not to make the same mistakes over and again, trying to leave behind a better place than the one we found. And yet, about dying and grief we don’t seem to be doing it any better. Can we imagine end-of-life as a teaching experience for the dying? Can we imagine it as a learning experience for the living?