On Being Away, the Death of My Great Grandmother, and Death Cafes

Hello to the void. I’ve really let this blog die *I promise that will be my one and only pun.* In all sincerity, this blog was the most important thing to me during a really rough time and I should not have given it up so easily. I apologize. It’s time for a pivot as they say in the biz (I’m not sure which biz exactly but it sounded good); here’s an unsolicited story about how I see this blog and my great grandmother’s death (which contains no cemetery research, I’m afraid).

Preface: I love talking about death more than any single topic. I’ve always felt slightly guilty and indulgent for letting my routine conversations drift to darker places like mortality and the accompanying macabre. At one point in grad school I was writing a term paper about women who light themselves on fire as a form of political protest (see Kathy Change) until I discovered that someone else had already finished a dissertation about the rhetoric of self immolation. I was so jealous and pissed that I didn’t get to it first. The topic was admittedly morbid and over the top, but I loved brining it up with my colleagues and friends. In some ways, I liked being the girl always talking about suicide and death. It seemed to fit. All of this is to say that death is a really special and important topic to me, and if you find yourself wanting to share in further conversation about it please stick with this blog. However, I no longer live next door to a cemetery so I must transition to reflect where I am and how I can best contribute to discourses of mortality, the meaning of consciousness, and our relationship to death—even at the cost of not being able to do routine research and losing your interest. With Thanksgiving around the corner I want to tell the story about witnessing my great grandmother’s death and how incredibly grateful I am for that.

The morning of my great grandmother’s death I was running out the door to go to work at my library job. She was 92. We had just celebrated her birthday and a large family reunion. I know she was holding out for that. My grandmother had always been a stubborn woman who didn’t like extra attention. She would not let you take her to the doctor or make any fuss, so when she started allowing people to carry her around because of the edema I knew it was getting close to the end. She called to me from the back bedroom where she slept. I rushed in and saw her clutching at her chest. I remember watching her thrash wildly and struggle for faltering breath. I could do nothing but watch. I hoped that simply standing there was enough, letting her know through my touch and gaze that I would be there with her however I could in those very last moments. We didn’t say much. She tried to get up. She was terrified and clearly knew that she was dying. I yelled at my grandmother (three generations living in one house, a story for another time) to call for an ambulance that I knew wouldn’t make it in time. She eventually stopped fighting and she grew calm and grabbed my arm. I held her with everything I had. I wished that she could feel every ounce of my love and gratitude for her. I also wanted her to feel and know that it was okay to let go.

Finally she did. She let out a long strange bellow that turned into a rattling gasp. As her breath flattened she appeared to let go as if drifting to sleep, peacefully even. I sat with her until the paramedics arrived but we all knew she was gone though they detected a faint heartbeat. They took her to the hospital and everyone was called knowing that it was for the purpose of saying goodbye. We gathered around her, stretched our palms against her arms and legs gently, and took turns telling our secrets into her ear. It was beautiful and I felt a kind of joy in that moment. I was happy that it was quick, it seemed like she didn’t suffer greatly, and that she was surrounded by five generations of love.  

When we got back to her house we discovered hanging on the back of her bedroom door the clothes that she wished to be buried in. This woman who needed a team of grown men to carry her the day before somehow managed to get up, arrange her favorite dress, and adorn it with matching jewelry and heels. She was truly a remarkable woman and classy as fuck. (She would be so mad if she knew that I cussed).

This time of year I think of my great grandmother for obvious reasons. She was the matriarchal super glue that held my family together like broken porcelain. We haven’t had a normal Thanksgiving since. I’ve probably mythologized this woman whose namesake I bear, and maybe I’ve fetishized her death, but she was the symbol of womanly strength for most of my young life. She used to let us go “grocery shopping” in her pantry because there was rarely enough food at our house. I am sure she was in large part responsible for keeping my sisters and me alive and in a warm home whenever my mother went through her bouts of mental illness and suicide attempts.

To this day, my great grandmother’s life as well as her death are things I deeply cherish because in both she demonstrated that humans do triumph over death. There is nothing to fear. It is something that I want to talk about and celebrate.

So, that’s where I am with this right now. And maybe it will evolve from here. But for now I’m happy using this space to extend an already dynamic and wonderful community that welcomes death as a necessary component of human communication. Through this blog I’m taking a stance to talk about death in more empathic and ethical ways. Stay tuned if you’d like.

Also, check out this amazing network if you’re at all interested in similar topics and sharing with likeminded people. It’s a steadily expanding group with a wealth of information. I’m excited to start learning more: http://deathcafe.com/user/I’d love to host a Death Cafe or something similar in Columbus, OH, my current place of residence. Please email me if you’d be interested! diggirldesigns@gmail.com.

For Alice Hageman.img_2932

Thanks For Listening & Sorry to Be Away,

Alysen

4 thoughts on “On Being Away, the Death of My Great Grandmother, and Death Cafes

  1. Your great grandmother was a wonderful and funny woman, and I am so grateful to have been introduced to her by you. Our lunches with her meant more to me than I ever said, and I regret that. Gave me a little feel of home when I so desperately needed that. She’d be as proud of you as you are to be descended from her.

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