On Having to Say Goodbye: Reading about death and dying

I’ve been reading quite a lot about death and dying today and if that sounds absolutely morbid to you, well, believe me, every time I enter a new search term in Google, I cringe a little also.

How to talk to children about dying, I type.

I find these articles, articles that tell me to be honest with my children and brief, but to answer all of their questions. Don’t say that dying is like the body going to sleep forever. What you say about after dying depends on what you believe.

The articles say that parents often avoid talking to their children about death – ostensibly to “protect the children” but in reality, it’s a method of avoiding. Let’s not talk about the difficult things. If we ignore it, it will go away. If we don’t talk about it then can it really be happening?

My family met with hospice yesterday.

“I thought about all of the things that everyone ever says to each other, and how everyone is going to die, whether it’s in a millisecond, or days, or months, or 76.5 years, if you were just born. Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.”

– Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The thing is… no one is saying that this is it. They’re not saying it’s days or weeks. In the hours that have passed since my mother called me with the news, I have been told numerous times that there are people who have had hospice care for years even. While I’m not naive to believe that that would be the case here, it has helped me find peace to know that there’s still time.


While there’s still time, it’s important to make the most of that time, to take none of it for granted and to make sure my grandfather knows just how very loved he is, has always been, and how much better he has made my world.

My dad said to me on the phone yesterday, “Sarah, death is a part of life,” and I was angry at this statement. Though realistic, and though it’s true, the expression of this truth felt like he was crushing me, and ant beneath the heel of a boot. While I know he’s right, and while I know the statement wasn’t intended to hurt, it did.

That my grandfather is dying is devastating to me. Yes, it’s a part of that whole circle thing – but it’s the part that sucks for those of us who will be left behind.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

He has made his peace and he has lived an amazing life and he has loved and he is loving and we have loved and we are loving and I don’t know how my world will ever be the same.

When I was younger I remember standing in my front yard and the air was cool with a strong breeze, the clouds pushed through the sky by the wind. “The world must be spinning very fast today,” my mom said, and I laughed at her.

“It’s not the earth, mom, it’s the wind!” I replied.

“My dad always told me that it was because the world was spinning really fast.”

And it’s just like him to have said such a thing, and mom will tell you now that she never really believed that, but at the heart of it all, he’s a kind soul, with a light heart, and a goofy sense of humor.

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“I’m in good with the man upstairs,” he told my sister during one of his hospital stays this past fall. Deeply rooted in his faith, I don’t doubt that he’s found his peace and he has comfort in what may be waiting for him – that perhaps to him this is not an ending, but a new beginning.

I’ve, uh… never been good at the faith thing – but I hope that his beliefs bring him hope and comfort.

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of – moments when we as human beings can say “I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m grateful for you.” That’s what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.”
-Mister Rogers

Over the past 24 hours, I have thought to myself, how truly blessed I am to know while I still have the opportunity to tell him, how much I love him, how he has made a difference to me. How I’m grateful for every little moment – and every not so little moment – and I still get to tell him. He’s still here. Not everyone is that lucky.

As for what I’ll tell my children, I still don’t entirely know. I suppose I’ll tell them that great grandpa is old, and that bodies are similar to machines and to toys in that sometimes when they get older, things start going wrong, they don’t always work so well anymore. And sometimes, like that time when we were able to sew that stuffed animal back together, people and toys can be fixed. And sometimes they cannot. That we’ll be spending more time with my grandpa, their great grandpa, while we can. I’ll tell them stories about how when I was a kid, he always had candy for me like he always has for them now. How he told their grandmother that the world was spinning very fast. That he always kept pretzel rods and red Koolaid in the house. That when I was a kid and he’d call on the phone, we raced to see who could say “GOTCHA!” to the other first. That I’m sad because I love him, but that even when someone dies, we don’t forget them and that we get to keep the memories. That he’s still the same person, and there’s nothing to be scared of. And how he calls The Princess the smart gymnast and Pumpkin is the funny one and how much he loves them. I’ll let The Princess do handstands in the nursing home so he can see her and brag about her to the other residents. And when Pumpkin hides under a chair to be funny, I’ll let her because he thinks it’s funny too.

This part of parenting is hard.These things, these big heavy things that they’ll learn about from me and from life. I don’t want to be scared of these big things, because I don’t want them to fear them either.

This isn’t easy.

This is all just really really awful.

But I love him. I don’t want him to hurt.And I don’t get a choice in what happens, only what I do with the time we have left.

And so I will make it count.