When I was about 5, shortly after my grandfather passed away, my Grandma had been going through and organizing old boxes (a favorite a past time of hers). She pulled her wedding cake topper and gave it to me saying, “I probably won’t be around for your wedding so I want you to have this now.” Well, she did make it to my wedding just shy of her 90th birthday, and proceeded to last another 6 years beyond that.
On January 21, 2018, just two months shy of her 96th birthday, my Grandmother peacefully passed from this world. In the days following, as is expected, people have offered their condolences, saying things like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or remarking on the sadness of it.
Of course I appreciate everyone’s condolences and well wishes, but to be honest, and I hope this doesn’t make me sound uncaring or cold, I have not felt sadness or loss over her death. I have felt only peace and joy at her passing.
As I mentioned, my grandma was almost 96. Her husband, my grandfather, passed away almost 25 years ago. At that time she was living one street over from her older sister who was also a widow. They were companions then and my grandma cared for her sister up until she passed about 16 years ago. Living in St. George, which was basically a glorified retirement community, she still got together with “the girls” on a regular basis and busied herself with family history work. But as the years went on, more friends passed, and she spent much of her time alone, she began to be plagued with paranoia, anxiety, and other health concerns. About 10 years ago we thought we were going to lose her, but she bounced back and chose to move into semi-assisted living back in St. George as she had several friends living in the same community. She “de”-aged after moving there, surrounded by people again. Which was a huge testament to me of the need for human connection. I was living in Provo and would visit roughly once a semester. She would take me to the cafeteria to show me off to her friends and bring me to play cards with “the girls.”
On one of the card playing adventures the ladies began discussing other ladies in the community. After making a comment about someone my grandma said, in a very plain and matter of fact tone, “She used to play cards at that table, [pointed to the next table over] but she died.” Then a few minutes later the following conversation took place:
Friend: “Did you hear about Doris?”
Grandma: “Yes, her daughter came to help her move.”
Friend: “Well, she was going to move, but then she died.”
Grandma: “Oh, that’s nice.”
I was baffled and had no idea how to react. These ladies were talking about people in their community dying as casually and almost as celebratory as my friends and I would discuss people getting married. It began to occur to me that it was just the next step to them, just like my friends getting married or graduating. They were happy for them.
Grandma lived in that community for about 6 years. She continued to drive herself and her friends around past the age of 90 and took care of all of her own finances. She walked slowly but without assistance. While she ate most of her meals in the dining room with the other residents, she could still fix herself a simple meal as needed. She kept her apartment impeccably clean and organized.
And then one day, about 4 years ago, she lost it all.
It’s unclear as to the exact order of events. They aren’t sure if she suffered a minor stroke which caused a fall, or if she fell and hit her head causing a small stroke. But however it happened at 92 she started her decline. We moved her to Arizona, first to a care facility near my parents house, then into the mother-in-law suite attached to my parents’ house, where my mom’s mom was already living, and then finally a year ago, her care became too involved and she was moved into another care center where she died.
Perhaps the reason I have not felt sorrow or loss in her death is because I started the grieving process 4 years ago as I watched her body and her mind fail her. She suffered a few falls, one that broke her hip, because she couldn’t remember that she couldn’t walk on her own. She began to struggle with terrible panic attacks. She lost the ability to keep any sort of conversation. She could hardly follow a television program. It got to the point where she wasn’t really living, she was mostly just existing. She wasn’t really Grandma anymore, we lost her a long time ago.
There were sweet moments as well. She began to have conversations with lost loved ones, or would ask about them. My dad had been contacted by some distant cousins to help do the temple work for their Uncle’s second wife, Therle. I had never heard anyone in the family mention her before this experience, and my dad had not said anything to Grandma about the plans. But one day, a week or so before my dad was going to meet his cousins at the temple, out of nowhere Grandma asked, “And how’s Therle doing?”
The time she lived here in Arizona allowed her to spend time with her great-grandkids. She would perk up a lot when they were around.
But the overarching question she constantly asked over those 4 years was, “When can I go home?” And in all of hearts we started to ask the same question, when could she go home?
The sadness I have felt in this experience has not been in her death, but for how long she lingered. I don’t feel the need to seek understanding for why the Lord took her as so many do in situations of untimely deaths, the understanding I have been looking for is why she was made to linger so long. It’s painful to wonder how much loneliness, pain, mental anguish, boredom, and complete lack of independence someone can endure, only to watch it get worse and worse, and feel so powerless to do anything meaningful about it.
The decision was finally made to discontinue some of the medications that were keeping her alive and just make her comfortable. When my parents let me know that the decision had been made and hospice estimated it would only be a few more weeks, I felt very much at peace. We made arrangements to get the family together to visit her and for my husband to assist my dad to give her a final Priesthood blessing.
Typically when we talk about Priesthood blessings, they are intended to seek healing. This one was very different. My dad, seeking prompting by the Spirit, blessed her that she would see her loved ones soon, and that she would not be afraid but would feel peace. He blessed her to die.
She was asleep the whole time we were there, and was struggling to breathe. As we sat there with her the words to this song came to my mind, and became almost like a prayer for her:
Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest! Come lead me to peace because I am weary of the world, O come! I wait for you, come soon and lead me, close my eyes. Come, blessed rest!
That idea of death being sweet and blessed was very real. She was weary of the world in so many ways. Her body was weary. Her heart was weary as most everyone she had associated with in this life went before here. Come soon. I didn’t want to watch her suffer any more, I wanted it to come soon. And it did.
We had figured it would still take a few days for her medications to leave her system. However, the very next day my dad received a call from hospice telling him they believed it was going to happen that day and that he should probably come. My mom sent me a text message shortly after I got home from church relaying the news but said that it might be several hours. I wavered for a minute on whether or not I should head over then or wait, but since it was Sunday and my husband was home to take care of the kids, I decided I should just go ahead and go.
Shortly after getting on the road for my 40 minute trip across town, my mom sent another message that said it would be soon. I was full of nervous energy wanting to be there, but also a little bit afraid to be there as she passed. I can’t really explain it, but the idea of being with someone as they pass has always sounded odd to me, but I hoped that this might help me work through some of those anxieties. When I was about halfway there I had this sudden peace come over me, and had the thought that she was gone. I immediately second guessed myself and the nervousness came back only to followed by peace again and a voice that said, “You’re not going to make it in time.” About three minutes later my mom sent another message that she was gone.
As I pulled up to her care center, knowing she had already passed, but wanting to see her, I got this distinct impression, I could almost see it, that she was with my grandpa, and they were so happy, almost giddy. It was beautiful. Her death was sweet.
Final Acts of Service
About a year ago, knowing that his mother’s death was more imminent than not, my dad began designing a casket. I think my dad’s love language is building things. Some might call this gift giving or acts of service, but it’s not just any gift or any act of service, it’s designing and building very customized items. The design for her casket was based on her old Singer sewing machine that had been her mother’s. It is now over 100 years old and has been a prized possession. About a week before her passing, he showed her pictures of the almost completed casket, she was able to whisper that it was beautiful. Below is the sewing machine to the left (sorry I should have gotten a better picture of the front), and the completed casket to the right.
It was not quite complete before her passing. I began helping to stain it before we went to see her the last time then continued that evening and after she passed. My 3 year old had taken quite an interest into what Grampses (that’s what he calls my dad) was doing in the garage. We explained to him that it was a casket, that Great-Grandma Ramsey’s body would go in the casket when she died, but that her spirit would go to Heaven. We got him set up inside with some blocks so we could work in the garage, but he came running up to me with the blocks and excitedly exclaimed, “Let’s build a casket!!” He proceeded to build a casket out of blocks then showed it to me and explained, “This one’s for her spirit.” It sounds a little creepy out of context, and I made sure to warn his preschool teacher the following week that he might build a casket out of blocks. But it was so sweet and innocent and I hope that he can keep that perspective of service for the dying. One of the hard parts of watching someone go, is not being sure what to do about it. Should you sit there and just watch? I don’t know, and the answer is probably different for everyone, but it felt right to be honoring her by helping my dad finish his final tribute to her.
Additionally I had the beautiful and sacred experience to assist in preparing her body for burial. It is customary for endowed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be buried in their temple clothing. When possible, this is traditionally done by other endowed family members of the same gender. For those who are unfamiliar with the temple, there is a beautiful and short video that briefly explains this clothing and it’s importance. In the temple we receive instruction and make covenants in endowment rooms, which includes putting on this special clothing, also referred to as the robes of the Holy Priesthood. Temple worship service culminates by entering the Celestial Room which “[symbolizes] heaven, where we may live forever with our family in the presence of our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.” (See reference and more information here.)
Honestly, when I first got the news that they were just making her comfortable and realized that this service of dressing her would fall to my mom and me, I felt anxious. As I mentioned before the thought of being with someone when they died was a bit frightening to me. The thought of touching a dead body, was very disturbing. I can’t really explain exactly why, but it made me queasy. I asked around for advice from others who had done this for their own relatives and received a lot of wonderful responses. One of the responses that helped me work through my concerns was a reminder of the women who prepared Christ’s body for burial. That was a beautiful way to think of it, so I carried that with me, and while it was still difficult at first to touch her, I was able to do it. I felt the need to take extra care to make sure everything was straight and tied beautifully. My mom and I chuckled a little together as my grandma had been incredibly neat and tidy, maybe to the point of being a bit obsessive compulsive about it.
I reflected on that desire to be neat after we finished and left her in the funeral home. I thought about my first time going to the temple. I was living in Provo at the time, my parents in Arizona, which made St. George (her home) a good meeting spot. At that time she was having a difficult time sitting anywhere besides her own chair at home for long periods of time which would make attending the temple difficult. I spoke to her and let her know what the plan was, that I would love it if she could be there, but would understand if her physical limitations would not allow it. Her response was that she would, “take an extra pill if needed.” I don’t know what those pills were, but apparently they worked, and she was able to come. I remember her fussing over me a little to make sure everything was straight and neat. As I was reflecting on this, the beautiful thought came to me, that she had helped me to be prepared to enter the Celestial Room of the temple nearly 10 years ago, but now I had symbolically prepared her to enter the presence of the Lord in the Celestial Kingdom.
To picture her finally fulfilling her desire of going home, to her eternal home, reinforced in my heart and soul that her death was sweet.