Death and Dying Shouldn’t Be Awkward

A microscope is on death. But have we learned anything about how to accompany someone through the process of dying, death, and grief? 

Forget-Me-Nots, painted by my grandmother.

We have found ourselves talking about death more these past few months. But we still fear it. We express our desires to support others as their loved one passes. But we still scurry like ants when someone mentions their loved one is dying. We send flowers and sympathy cards after we hear of a passing. But we fail to listen to the story. 

Last month, my grandmother passed away after a months-long journey with stage 4 kidney cancer. Diagnosis of cancer while living in a new state, with the impersonal health care of 2020, is quite something. Something I would not want anyone to experience. A blend of a terrible hospital system and the precautions paves the way for a journey that is lonely, frustrating, and far more exhausting than it ever needed to be. But, it showed me something. It showed me how little people are invited, encouraged, or sometimes even desire to be active and knowledgeable about their health journey. It showed me how family and friends that you would give your life for fall silent. It showed me how by allowing those in your professional life into your personal life for only a glimpse, you discover how much they do care about those they work beside. 

Yes, it is strange to experience dying and death in times such as these. 

The pandemic has highlighted death. We are encouraged and told to fear it more than anything else a soul can experience. We have stripped away coping mechanisms, and our doctors have become but beady eyes behind the mask and shield as they robotically “care.” All of this is layered on top of an already damaged approach to life, medicine, and death. The layers run too deep to write about it all in one post, but it is a topic worth opening up. 

Over the next few weeks, I would like to share with you some of this journey. 

  1. Personal life bleeds into the professional life 
  2. Doctors appointment, Diagnosis, and Hospice and Family Care
  3. Death of a Loved One
  4. Accompaniment on the journey 

Personal Life Bleeding Into the Professional 

When our professional and personal lives meld together the way they have these past few months, when Zoom calls are taken in the guest bedroom, at the dining room table, or in some cases our childhood rooms, we find ourselves not only sharing the private spaces of our lives but home life as well. Others who would never have known the care partner side of an employee, peer, or student, now see how they care for loved ones, children, and yes, even pets. In the most professional of home offices, I have witnessed how others live within their families in a new way. I have watched as employers have taken a moment to help their son tie a shoe, how a peer assists his brother with Down Syndrome, how a daughter takes care of her mother with Lewy Body Dementia. I have watched as the community around me works to be both shining care partner and stellar employee. How can one be both shining and stellar? It is not through their perfection, nor in doing it all, but through their desire to love and give, to their fullest ability, what they can in each given moment. Yes, you can be both, for they bleed into one another. We must never deny the beauty of that.

My journey started in July when my grandmother started experiencing symptoms of kidney cancer. (A journey that will be shared later.) Like many of my peers, I have lived with my family during this past year, and with that came the great blessing of also living with my grandmother during her final months. I was in a prime position for the personal life to bleed into my professional life. People I never would have told about my grandmother, suddenly were with me every step of the journey. And when my grandmother finally did pass away, I felt awkward stating that she had died. 

Why was it awkward? They knew the day was coming. They knew the ups and downs, the close moments, and the coasting. Is it awkward because of death? Or because of the attention, it draws on oneself? 

I have now sat on both sides of this experience of death, and I am always honored when people share with me the news about a loved one’s passing. I sincerely offer my sympathies, and they remain in my prayers as they too grieve. 

There is beauty in the sharing of one’s life in a variety of ways. It is found in the ability to accompany someone because they reached out to share with you the personal, not just the professional. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to understand the value of walking this journey together. It shouldn’t be awkward to let someone know someone has died. Yet, here we are, awkward, uncomfortable, wondering why our personal and professional lives are bleeding together, part of us wishing they wouldn’t. There is a level of professionalism that must always remain, the traditions and formality of it all, but there is room for the personal. There is room, for those in our professional world to walk with us as we journey through life. 

Telling others, from our neighbors to our friends, to our colleagues and employers, that someone close to us has passed away should never be awkward or avoided, for it is part of this life to experience birth and death, new joys and losses. We are richer in this world when our communities walk with us. 

Published by Kathryne Fassbender

Creative Gerontologist, Speaker, Catholic Innovator. I am also the granddaughter of someone who lived with Vascular Dementia.

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