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What saying goodbye to my grandmother taught me about living

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I sat next to my grandmother’s bed and stroked her arm and hand yesterday afternoon as I gratefully found myself alone with her. I took hold of the next few moments, as I knew they were going to be our last. I listened as she struggled to find the words.

I didn’t push for speaking, instead attempting to create the space for her to feel emotionally safe; safe enough to speak slowly. I breathed her in, memorized the line of her nose and remarked about the softness of her skin. She laughed and said, “Everyone tells me that. I don’t know.” It made me smile. She has never accepted a compliment without disregarding it since I’ve known her.

We sat in intermittent periods of silence and conversation; the very best kind of intimacy. We spoke of her fears about where she was going and what would happen when she died. I let her feel her fear without dismissal, and shared that I, too, would feel afraid. She asked, “Is this normal to feel this way?” I said with certainty that it was, and she smiled and said that was good to know. That solidified one of my personal truths — we just need to know we are not alone.

Over the last several years, my grandmother and I have connected in our periods of loneliness. She would often ask how I was doing, and we would validate how difficult it can be to go to sleep alone at night. We’d often laugh at the similarities in our social lives. She was proud of my accomplishments but has been the only one in my life brave enough to validate and label my loneliness. She would ask about me first, and my job second. It was almost like she could see into my soul.

As she struggled to communicate, she shared that the most important part of life is to care for yourself; something that I know she learned through the experiences of not caring for herself. She validated my life’s struggles, sharing with me her truth that there would be a day when my son, who is 14 and living with a rare chromosomal abnormality (Ring 18), could run and talk alongside me. She confirmed that she believed everything would be OK for me; however, she didn’t negate my struggle. She never negated my struggle. It is so incredibly powerful to be seen without negation; to be loved as complete human. One built of both pain and joy, love and heartbreak, success and failure.

I am no stranger to mortality; I have faced my own when I was diagnosed with cancer and have sat with my son’s close calls with death several times. Each time I promise myself to remember the fragility and intimacy inside those moments. I promise to live each day with that same desperation and desire. Then, I would inevitably get stuck inside the everyday life of bills and kids and worries and work, and somehow forget — forget that life is not about the stuff, or the pitch or the future. It is about now.

The last six months have been hard on humanity. They have felt uncertain, hopeless and exhausting. I understand. I have felt those things, as well. But, man, the slower pace has been so healing for me. I have spent intentional time with my children and ... with myself. I even bought a puppy; something I swore I would “never have time for” (how did I ever live without her?). This pace has finally given me the gift of presence that I have so longed to retain. Despite the hardships of our isolation, I found company within myself.

I moved my body to leave in preparation for my final goodbye. I told my grandmother I loved her, something I haven’t said often enough, and hugged her tightly, trying to memorize the feeling. She then asked if I had someone to go to home to. In my grandmother’s final moments with me, she again saw my soul.

Then, I let go of the hand that made the mother who made me.

Just as my grandmother knew, life has never been about what we do or what we get. It is about who opens the door to greet us as we return home.

I love you, Grandma.

Jenny Howe is a therapist and mental health consultant.