My Grandmother passed away recently, two months shy of her 88th birthday. As I have grieved her death and reflected on her life, I have repeatedly felt much appreciation for the preparations she made for her passing.
My Grandmother lived a simple yet rich life in a small town in rural South Carolina. She loved God and her family and was well acquainted with death. She was widowed twice, each time after extended periods of care taking a husband of more than twenty years who was battling cancer. Her willingness and strength to rise above great losses and enjoy life despite them, was always an inspiration to me.
Perhaps it was these experiences that helped her embrace death as a part of life. The topic of her future death was not a source of offense. I remember one time when I was young, expressing during a holiday meal my desire to have her glassware when she died. My younger cousin chimed in with no objection, as she wanted the house.
While this conversation was in childhood jest, as my Grandmother progressed in years, she began the preparation process in earnest. She gifted property, put sticky notes on the back of artwork, and let us know personal items she wanted us to have once she passed. It was not grim or foreboding. These were expressions of love and a testimony that death is not something to fear.
When cognitive decline led to her need for around-the-clock monitoring, she grieved the loss of her independence but accepted the need for assisted living. She even surprised all of us by asking that her home be put up for sale. She was intentional and willing to truly embrace difficult changes, to make things easier on those she loved. She did not give up on life; she continued to make plans for the future. She simply took action to ensure that when her life ended, the administrative burdens were minimized.
It is such a gift to be able to grieve without the mental gymnastics of trying to guess what a loved one would have wanted. My Grandmother honored her family by making her wishes known, and simplifying her estate during her life.
When the time came to divvy up the last of her personal possessions – those favorite things she had taken to assisted living or asked to be held onto – I wondered how we would do. While none of us is materialistic, the finality of death can press sensitive, sentimental buttons in anyone. One day’s junk can be a grieving day’s treasure. I prayed we would honor my Grandmother and each other as we made our final selections. I am grateful to say we did.
We laughed over her Precious Moments doll collection, imagined the pearls found by divers in Key West had been planted there for show, and wondered how in the world she bore the pain of clip-on earnings. I held up a four-strand sea foam green pearl and silver necklace, imagined her wearing it to church on a Sunday morning and recalled how each pastor who spoke at her funeral had spoken of her elegance. “I remember her wearing that when I was a little girl,” my aunt said. “To church?” I asked, assuming it was for special occasions. “She wore it every day,” my aunt replied. Grandma wore bling — before bling was even a thing. And not only on special occasions. While sea foam green cannot be found in my wardrobe, I chose to keep that pearl necklace. It is a reminder to me to live life vibrantly every day and fear not death. Instead, plan for this inevitability, as a gesture of love.
My husband and I updated our estate plans twice before we even turned 30. Some times at church, one of us will lean over to the other and say, “I would like this song sung at my funeral.” Death is a part of life. Our willingness to embrace this eventual reality and prepare accordingly is one more way to live well and love well. Thank you, Grandma, for modeling this for our family. And happy 88th birthday.