What happens when someone dies

the story

As I write this, exactly a week ago, my grandma passed away.

She had been progressively getting weaker for about a week. Her deterioration was fast (and merciful?), really. All her life, she had no chronic ills or pains save some athritis in her knee. However, in the last few days before she died, she had no appetite, and I like to think she died simply because she was old and it was time for the body’s machine to shut down.

One morning we got a call from the care facility that she’d been taken to the hospital. I was told by my parents to go to work, like normal. I did. Sometime in the midmorning I texted my mom for updates. She sent back a haunting text: “She’s dying. You’ll be too late.”

I went outside and called her, asked the phone to be placed by my grandma’s ear. She was past her ability to talk and didn’t respond. I muttered something I’ve since forgotten. I went back to my office, shaken. I sat there for a few moments, then decided to up it and leave.

To be honest, on the bus on the way to the hospital, I was hoping I’d miss it. I’d never seen the moment of someone’s death before, and I didn’t think it was a particularly pleasant thing to observe. When I got off the bus I walked slowly. I was scared.

My dad picked me up at the door and led me to her bed. Just when we opened the curtain my mother and my grandma’s cousin – her only family in town – were frantic. Her vitals had just gone down. “Right when you [my dad] left,” my mother was saying.

I ran to her and grabbed her hand and I cried and I cried and I cried. I could barely recognize her; there was barely a wisp of life in her.

But, her vitals went back up.

But, only faintly. Very soon, and just like that, she was gone.

the context

I wasn’t particularly close to my grandma. We didn’t share an inkling of similarity. Our culinary tastes were polar opposites. Her beliefs and my beliefs were opposites too (she was very traditional). We even had a language barrier; she was one of my few relatives who spoke almost no English. Even if I could converse freely with her, there’d be nothing for us to converse about, to be frank.

But her death took a heaver toll on me than I expected. Perhaps because she was one of my last grandparents left and I’d actually grown up with her and seen her often throughout the years. She was…not more than a background hum in my life. Or so I believed.

I’m fairly young, but I believe I’ve witnessed more deaths than many people my age. I’m also one of the few people among my friends with aging relatives that, well, die quite often. When I was eight years old, my other grandmother passed away. That death would haunt me for years, since she was an individual I was emotionally closer to than any of my parents, friends, and relatives. It really messed me up, to the point where, looking back, I could see my child self diagnosed with real medical psychological problems. That particular loss still echoes sometimes, after all those years, as I’ve realized a lot of my writing and artistic expression is rooted in the pain and loneliness of that experience.

Post-someone’s-death, you’re possessed by thoughts. Chiefly, these are thoughts of guilt. I should have spent more time with this person. I should have loved them more and dismissed all their faults. Seniors, especially, get particularly needy near the end of their lives, and are often not pleasant to deal with emotionally. (My grandma was no exception). Why couldn’t I look pass the negativities of her personality when she was reaching the end of her life, and just love her for all of them? And why couldn’t I convince other people to do the same?

One thing I’ve learned about my family as I’ve grown up is that we’re not a very emotional or expressive bunch. We rarely talk about how we feel. I don’t criticize it, really, because it makes for a drama-free and peaceful household, but it’s got its cons. For one, grieving feels lonely. I’ve cried since the time of the event, but I’ve always felt alone doing it, in the loneliness of my room, at night, beneath covers.

the thoughts

Like I said, I’m one of the few people my age in my social circle who have witnessed this many deaths of close people. So when people in my demographic – university-educated 20-somethings, secular – say things like they don’t fear death – well, sometimes I want to punch them in the face because they’re ignorant and insensitive as fuck.

I know they mean they’re unafraid of the abyss of oblivion that is believed by secularists as the end to all life, but death is more than that. Death is a process, a process that can take weeks, months, even years. A process that dries you away, slowly, and not just you, but all those you love. My grandma in the last stages of her life – nay, the last year, was not the person I knew and loved as a kid. She wasn’t the woman that cooked for us on weekends, played Mahjong with my parents, and hemmed our clothes with dazzling skill. She was incapable of cooking, or moving around even, or speaking, or sometimes even recognizing who I was. She even lost her enjoyment of TV, the one thing I think she was really really passionate about.

Those people who say they’re unafraid of death are also often young and healthy. Death is a faraway concept to them. But if you were my grandma’s age, having lost all mobility, even the ability to go to the bathroom on your own, or lift yourself off your bed, and each day you’re getting worse, all the while inconveniencing and stressing out the people you love around you…I truly, truly believe your near and impending death would terrify to you.

When you see someone die, you realize how delicate life really is, and how fast it can be taken from you. One moment you’re there, the next, you’re not. I was especially paranoid crossing streets after my grandma died. One moment I’d be there, the next, maybe not.

As a child I was raised Catholic and taught that if you do good things, you’ll go to a happy place after you die. Over the years, I’ve come to dismiss that notion. Instead, I’ve come to accept that life and death just…happen. Bad people die. Good people die. They die – they’re gone. It happens. Now, I don’t criticize the religious or spiritual belief of life-after-death as naive and childish – I’ve just accepted for myself that it probably won’t happen. Personally speaking.

This is probably one of the longer posts I’ve written, but I think it’s one of the most important ones. There’s no point in this post, no takeaway, no ingredient I want you to take with you on your life’s travels. It’s simply one individual’s honest retelling of the pain of loss and all she has been thinking about since then. If you have gone through a similar experience, I hope you will take solace and solidarity in our shared experience. If you have never gone through a similar experience, I guarantee you will.

From birth to death, your life is a story. You’ll have the privilege to witness the beginnings of other people’s stories, and the honour to see people off when their story ends. Someday, your story will end too. I hope it will be a happy ending, a resolute one, and one the people you love will remember.

My parents say my grandma’s vitals went up briefly when I entered the room because she could feel that I was there. I like to think she loved me enough to come back for me, if even for just a moment more.


One thought on “What happens when someone dies

  1. When the people of 9/11 died, a large sum of people were shell shocked. We didn’t know these people, and might have hated them if we did, but we still felt sad for them. Then the essayist argues why some values, such as the deaths of Hiroshima, are valued over others, such as those children or common men who die every day. Do we value them more? I think that we do not. If we did, we wouldn’t have felt so bad to witness someone be hit by a car or hear a friend’s relative die. There’s a window I think everyone goes through when hearing the news that someone’s died-not a week long window, a longer window. when i read that someone had perished in our province I immediately thought of the adventurous people from our school that often did such things. To see that they were indeed from our school the next day broke my heart because it’s easy to envision yourself in that same position, dying one day, and breaking the hearts of all the ones you love behind. I think that’s the hard part that you have to go through when you hear someone’s died. Yeah, I was extremely paranoid; I think I need a month before I’d want to do anything risky again. Sorry you’ve had so many people die. In general it seems like one’s two sets of grand parents live the bulk of our lives before they get to do anything involving us, dammit, sorry to my great grand parents whom I sure don’t know exist…There’s so many people and each death is just as important as the other. If you could think of it that way, then it evens out the unbalanced scale-it’s not just someone you love who died, but a whole mass of dying people who are on one side of the scale, and a whole mass of living people on the other side that deserve our contribution (and reciprocally, we deserve theirs)
    Life is pretty dam delicate but I guarantee the will to live esp in that last moment when she recognized you were there was not delicate in the slightest. Strongest thing there is. 🙂 Hence, people say they don’t fear death because they believe that their will to live will outlast the pain their death causes. No one’s going to agree with that right now, but that moment of strength you saw will stick for sure. If someone you love dies, find someone else to share that love with like you did here.


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