Further Than the Moon- My Lesson In Dying

Further Than the Moon- My Lesson In Dying


“Why should I feel discouraged?  Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and Home?  When Jesus is my portion , my constant friend is He.  His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me,”

My grandmother passed away. 

She was 88 years old.

I don’t know that her passing was the pivotal moment on the morning that she died.  I had been up with her all night as she struggled to breathe and remain comfortable in her hospital bed.  I brought her water, talked to her and called the nurse anytime she wanted to change positions in an attempt to be more comfortable.

Her passing was not expected to anyone else, however, she knew.  

I have a lot of thoughts and opinions surrounding this experience.  I know that I am going to make some people in my family angry by discussing any of it.  First of all,  please know, I believe in dignity and respect.  I still hold value to the moments that are considered sacred, but still, what I learned needs to be shared. 

In her passing I was given confirmation for everything that I have believed to be true about God’s mercy and what happens when we die.  Regardless to what anyone else has ever tried to tell me or regardless of anything that someone claims that they have read in the Bible.  I know what I witnessed.

My grandmother passed at 0423 on July 18, 2012.  She was pronounced at 0425. When I realized that she was no longer breathing, I was not afraid. I did not panic. It was a calm that came in knowing she was at peace.    I did not call the nurse.  I simply kissed her on the forehead, told her I would be right back and walked out to the nurses station.

I found Nurse Kate and informed her  “My Grandmother is gone, she has passed,”  Her reaction was that of shock and disbelief.  She and two other nurses jumped up and ran to her room with their stethoscope.  It seems ironic to me that they were running.  Granny and I both knew this was going to happen.

Earlier in the day, my mother sent me a text message to let me know that my grandmother was in the hospital.  I called her. She informs me that she doesn’t know what’s going on yet but it was at the point that everyone needed to know that she was in the hospital.    Based on her tone, I know something is seriously wrong. I remind my mother than I am a big girl and that she needed to just tell me what was going on.

My grandmother is having serious difficulty breathing that is better than it was this morning but it’s still not good.

I was under the impression that my grandmother’s hospitalization was not known to everyone, based on the reaction I was getting do to a Facebook status I had posted, requesting prayers for her.  A lot of people did not know. If they did know, they didn’t realize that there had been a change.   I started making phone calls.

I walk into the room and see my grandmother laying in her bed.  She’s struggling for breath and making almost a gasping sound as she does it. She’s working hard.  She’s got a canula in her nose for oxygen.  I wonder why they don’t have her on a vent or monitors.  I am informed that she signed a DNR (do not resuscitate )earlier in the morning when her breathing was at its worst. 

 I can see that she is uncomfortable.  It looks bad. I’m told that it was worse earlier and she’s breathing better now.  I didn’t find this better, but I wasn’t there earlier.   I  ask my mother to leave the room and sit down in the chair next to her.  I take her hand.  She informs me that she can’t breathe very well and that she can’t hardly talk either.

I tell her that I love her and I hold her hand. I told her that I didn’t know that she was in the hospital or I would have been there sooner.  I make small talk while I try not to cry.    I tell her that her hospital socks are cheery because they’re yellow.  I’ve only seen blue.   I tell her that she has nice legs and that the boys tell me that I also have nice legs and now I know where I get them from.  That makes her laugh. 

I try not to stare.  I just want to look at her though.  If this is it, I want to remember her face. Even now she’s beautiful.  This is the woman who also played the role as my mother when I was a little girl.  I spent weeks at a time  and weekends at my grandparents home when I was young.  I was also her employee at countless catering functions that she had. 

My grandparents also gave me the world.  They took my on many of their trips to Wisconsin to visit my extended family.  I accompanied them on a trip to Washington state that included spending time in Montana with family. It’s because of my grandparents that I was able to see and do a lot of the things that became the memories that I cherish today.

My only regret is that in the past few years, I was not able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked to. For most of my adult life, I have worked in an unconventional job.   As far as being on the ball with phone calls and visits, I failed miserably.  There were months that passed where I was unable to see her or talk to her.  Looking back, I see opportunity, but all I can say is, use my experience and learn from it. Life is short. We are all busy, but we aren’t that busy.

As the night went on, my family gathered at the hospital to visit with her.  My uncle Mark was on his way from Wisconsin.  At one point my grandmother had decided that there was too many people in her room and managed to tell them  ”One of you has got to leave, you taking up all of the air.”

My grandmother was feeling very warm though she was cold to the touch.  I later learned that this was normal.  She continued to be uncomfortable and her breathing was quick and for lack of a better word to describe it, difficult.

At approximately 8pm a doctor and a nurse entered the room for their rounds.  The nurses had just completed their shift change.  The doctor who had arrived to speak to my grandmother was not the usual doctor, he was actually a surgeon.  He was making nightly rounds for the usual doctor. He seemed strangely  uncomfortable to be there.

He began talking to my grandmother about how she was feeling and different things that they wanted to try.  My grandmother looked at him funny and then looked straight ahead and seemed just irritated with him. 

She then told him pretty much flat-out, in one sentence “I don’t think all of that is necessary,” 

The doctor was surprised at her response and asked her “Why do you say that?”

My grandmother looked at him, annoyed,  and responded “I think at this point I am pretty much terminal.  I only have a few hours left.”

At that moment, I am sitting in the small wooden chair at the foot of the bed.  I can’t hear anyone else but her talking. Everything inside me is saying  “I really wish she wouldn’t talk like this.”

A middle-aged woman with wild red hair, whom I later learned to be Nurse Kate,  entered the room.  She overhears my grandmother talking to the doctor, who is now also talking to my mother.  This is the moment where I became well aware that talking about someone like they weren’t even there was despicably wrong.

I hear Kate ask my grandmother “Are you planning on going somewhere tonight?”

My grandmother responds, “Later tonight, I am going to go  further than the moon,”

At that moment everything shifted.  She has just told the doctor that she was terminal and she just told the nurse that she’s going further than the moon. To hear her say that and mean it.  I believed her.  It wasn’t until later that I reveled in the poetry and beauty of that statement.  Further than the moon. I later learned that people who are dying often refer to their pending death as travel, as if they are going on a trip.

Right now, as I am working on  this article ( July 31, 2012 ) the moon is rising in the eastern sky and peeking through the window of my office.  Full, bright and freshly symbolic for me from the moment my grandmother said those words. There will be two full moons this month, I’ve been told. Amazing.

Nurse Kate told my grandmother that she needed to work on slowing her breathing. She gave my grandmother some medication to ease her anxiety.  The test results had shown that her lungs were clear, her kidneys were functioning. Nothing was irregular in her blood work.  They had no other explanation for her difficulty breathing. So they blamed it on anxiety.

I do not believe that my grandmother wanted to hear that. Or maybe more realistically, my grandmother understood, maybe without knowing, what was actually happening.  I think that it frustrated her.   She did however follow the direction of Nurse Kate and made attempts to slow down her breathing. While I didn’t want for my grandmother to die, I supported her if that was her decision.  She didn’t need permission but it seemed like she was looking for some kind of approval.

I think that she knew what she was talking about from the beginning. I don’t believe that it had anything to do with her willing herself to die. I just think that she was ready and now was the time it was going to happen.  It was just that, a matter of time.   I knew then that I was going to stay with her.   I accepted the reality. I was going to be there with her.

I left the hospital and quickly drove home. I made arrangements for someone to take care of my dog. I changed into more comfortable clothing and packed a backpack with clothes and other items for the following day. I knew I wasn’t coming home for a while.  I then headed back for the hospital.

When I returned to the hospital, my family was quietly dispersing for the evening.  My uncle and my mother were both getting ready to leave for the night. I don’t know what they were thinking. I didn’t ask. I don’t know that anyone was expecting her to pass away that night.

For whatever reason, my mother took the stance that her own mother was trying to make herself die and it wasn’t working.  It irritated me to listen to her talk to Nurse Kate about the situation and at one point she threw me under the bus and called me out about how I didn’t like the “pep talk” that was given.

Tough love they called it.  No, my grandmother is an 88-year-old woman who still has her mind. She knows better than we do what is going on .  I could go into the reasons why she might be unhappy in life but I never heard her tell anyone that she didn’t want to live anymore.  I think there’s a difference between wanting to die and being ready to die.

When everyone left I settled into the room.  My grandmother appeared to be growing more restless and it was hard to tell if she was feeling better or if it was restlessness.   She was uncomfortable and it was killing me that I couldn’t do anything to make her physically feel better.  She wanted sips of water more often and her one word conversations were turning into sentences.

Grandma asked me where my son, Dominic,  was. I explained to her that he was with his other grandma in South Bend.  I then took out my cell phone and showed her some pictures that I had taken of Dominic recently.  For the sake of continuing conversation, I showed her photographs of the dog, my friends and the garden that I had been relentlessly working on.

She asked me if I was going to spend the night with her. When I said yes, she seemed happy to hear that I was staying with her.  That made me happy too.  It had been a long time since I had spent the night with my grandmother. It made me think of when I was a little girl and I would spend the night at my grandparents house. If I didn’t have pajamas packed with me I would wear one of my grandfather’s undershirts.

There were so many things that I wanted to tell her and say to her but for whatever reason, all I could do was talk about mundane everyday life things. I told her about my job and the people who I worked with.  A recent hiking trip to the south that I had gone on and how I really liked the state of Mississippi. People were nice there.  Then I yammered on that if I ever won a million dollars, I would move to northwestern Montana.  She looked at  me as if to inquire why I needed a million dollars for that. It’s complicated, I say.

It seemed as though she was starting to relax so after a while,  I stopped talking. I did my best to make sure that she had everything that she wanted. I turned off the television, hoping that the stillness would help her fall asleep. I don’t know that it helped.  The room was quieter but it didn’t seem like she was able to relax as much as I wanted her to.

Time passed. I made  a couple of calls to the nurse to help reposition her in the bed to make her more comfortable. I gave her water when she asked for it.  It was difficult for her to talk. Sometimes she would get out an entire sentence.She kept telling me that she couldn’t breathe. I did my best to remind her of what Nurse Kate had told her about trying to slow down her breathing so she could catch her breath.  My grandmother tried.  It seemed to help a little bit.

My grandmother continued to be uncomfortable as time went on.  It was incredibly frustrating to watch her, clearly suffering. Each breath she took required a lot of effort.  Now she was telling me that she had pain in her abdomen. Nurse Kate tells me that they can’t do anything about it because of the medication they had just given her approximately a half hour prior.

A few minutes had passed and my grandmother looks over at me with a funny look.  I’m sitting in the small wooden chair on the side of her bed.  She quickly sits up and looks at me.  She looks really confused.  Before I can ask her what’s wrong she says, “I need you to help me,”

I get to my feet and lean into her, “What’s wrong, do you want some water?”

She looks around the room and says, “I think I’ve been kidnapped,”

I assured her that she hadn’t been kidnapped and that she was in the hospital.   It then occurred to me that she didn’t recognize me.  This was the moment that I started to get scared.  Up until this point, I was relatively “okay” with what was happening. I don’t think that I considered what was going to happen.

 She lays back down in the bed.  I call the nurse to help reposition her in the bed. I mention to the nurse that she thought that she had been kidnapped and that I wasn’t sure that she knew me. I was getting the impression that she was tolerating my presence.  Nurse Kate tells me that it was probably just the medication. I doubted that. It was a low dose of Xanax. She’s dying.  Nurse Kate leaves.

I sit back down in the wooden chair next to her bed.  A few moments pass.  My grandmother is playing with her fingers.  I get  up and I watch her for a moment.

I ask her, “Grandma do your hands hurt?”  She continues to make a motion with her hand on her fingers like she’s taking off rings.  She then reaches out for my hand and forms it into a cup like she’s giving me something.  

She tells me, “Put these in the dish, I don’t want to drop them in the sink,”  She then starts making a motion like she’s stacking plates in the cabinet.  She’s washing dishes.  My grandmother spent a lot of time in the kitchen.  She was employed as a caterer for years. She loved cooking and baking.

She seemed happy.

As time went on though. It was evident that she was still very uncomfortable and very restless. It was hard for me to watch her like this.  It was also making me angry.  It seemed to me that she had done enough in her life, for a lot of people.  Including the Roman Catholic Church in the city where she lived. She took care of the priests for many years. My grandmother did so much for a lot of people.  She was an incredibly generous woman.  It was just wrong that in the last hours of her life that she be made to suffer at all.

That was my conversation with God.  Or my argument with God, I should say. It certainly wasn’t a prayer.  I started asking Him questions with such attitude that I should be ashamed of myself.   ”Wow really, God? It has to be like this? Exactly how long are we planning  to allow this to go on? I think she’s had enough. You know what she wants. Why don’t you give it to her?”

I sat back down in the little wooden chair next to her bed.  It’s approximately a quarter after 3 in the morning. I’m watching her stir in the bed. She doesn’t want anything. She’s just moving around and trying to breathe.  She then became still and seemed to be focusing on something.

Something had changed.

I looked on from my chair as the expression on my grandmother’s face had changed.  She looked towards the right side of the bed.  Her eyes lit up.  She smiled.  Then she leaned over and reached with both arms as if she was going to pull someone in to embrace.  She started talking to someone but I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

I didn’t say a word.  I just watched.  At the time,  I was trying to figure out if what I was seeing was what I had always hoped for.  You are not alone at the hour of your death.  I truly believe that when we die, the people that we had loved in our lives that had already gone, come back to get us and lead us Home. It was real.  It was happening and I was watching.

I don’t know exactly who was the first to arrive in her hospital room, but I think it was my grandfather. My grandfather passed away in 1991. Obviously I am only assuming, just based on her reaction.  After spending some time going over the events in my mind,  I believe that there were three people in the room, not including me, that had come. My family also lost two girls, my cousins, Heather and Holly.  They passed away within 1 month of each other in 1998 after their life long battles with Cystic Fibrosis.

There were tears on my grandmother’s cheeks.  She was happily chatting with someone.  She looked over at me and then raised her arm and touched my face with her hand.  Then she touched my hair.  After that she seemed focused on something behind me and she started talking.  Someone else was there. 

Not long after that she turned her attention to the other side of the bed.  She began talking happily to whomever was there.  Then she started to talk to whomever was there on both sides of the bed.  She looked back and forth as she was talking.  She was smiling.

I wished that I could see them too.  It made sense to me that the three major losses in our family were my grandfather, Harold and my cousins, Heather and Holly.  I was convinced that it was them who had arrived.  There could have been more than three, but it seemed like there were at least three people there.

My grandmother had raised her hand to the railing of her bed. I watched as she seemed to be touching and then holding someone’s hand. She did that for a long time as she gazed and spoke to whomever was there.  Then she was quiet.

It was only then that she became peaceful.  Her breathing was slowing down.  It seemed as though she was finally getting comfortable in her bed.  It appeared as though she was starting to drift off to sleep. I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of what was happening. I sat quietly, observing. I didn’t want to disturb what was happening.

I was curious if the people were still there.  I wished that I could see them.  At one point, I said it out loud. I told them that I wished that I could see them too and that I loved them.  Over the past few years when I have longed to speak to my grandfather and I was wondering if he ever watched over me or if he was ever with me, now I knew he was there.  The only time I ever could have been certain that he was there with me. There really are no words to describe this.

Perhaps their presence was the reason why I also felt at peace.  I wasn’t afraid. I felt a strange calm. I settled into the chair on the opposite side of the bed.  I looked on as my grandmother became quiet. I was thankful that she was finally able to rest.

I decided to listen to my iPod for a little while. I have a playlist on my iPod titled “Jesus Rocks”.  I que two songs.  The first one being “Lift High” from the Steve Fee Band and then David Crowder’s version of “All Creatures Of Our God and King”. 

Earlier in the evening when I was having my conversation with God. I kept thinking about Steve Fee’s song “Lift High” where the lyrics said;

“Lift high, your chains undone
All rise, exalt the Son
Jesus Christ, the Holy One
We lift our eyes to You”

 I was looking to God for answers and Jesus for help.  Knowing that only God had control over what could happen.  Jesus allowing the comfort to come. This hospital room was at peace. All was quiet.  I sat and watched my grandmother as she was drifting off to sleep.

One song had played. I had drifted off to sleep for almost 4 minutes. I only know this because the song had ended and the next one was just starting.    I heard a loud voice booming in my head shouting “JENN!”  I shook myself awake.  I looked on towards my grandmother and saw that she was moving.  I got up and walked over to her to see if she was awake and if she needed anything.

My grandmother shifted her shoulders, rolled on her right side and then stretched out her neck.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the moment when she was starting to die.  I returned to my chair for a moment. Then I got back up and walked back over to the bed.

I stood there and watched her for a moment. From three feet away I looked on as her breathing began to slow down. A breath…. A breath… And then nothing.   I stood at the side of her bed and watched her eyes and they began to close.  Half way.  Then I realized that she was gone.

 My grandmother passed at 0423 on July 18, 2012.  She was pronounced at 0425. When I realized that she was no longer breathing, I was not afraid. I did not panic. It was a calm that came in knowing she was at peace.    I did not call the nurse.  I simply kissed her on the forehead, told her I would be right back and walked out to the nurses station.

I found Nurse Kate and informed her  “My Grandmother is gone, she has passed,”  Her reaction was that of shock and disbelief.  She and two other nurses jumped up and ran to her room with their stethoscope.  It seems ironic to me that they were running.  Granny and I both knew this was going to happen.

I did not cry. I stood gazing at the woman I had known for the past 35 years of my life.  The nurses bustled around me, following their protocol.  Each of them commenting that they were surprised and couldn’t believe that she had actually passed.  I ignored the comments about how she had “willed herself to die”.  I didn’t believe that and no one else should either. 

I know that my grandmother had spent the day and evening rallying for her death. She knew that it was coming. I know that she knew there was nothing that she could do about it.  I know that she was afraid of what would happen next.  Not one time did she speak an angry word or lash out to God.

I called my Uncle Mark who quickly met me at the hospital.  We sat for a long time and talked.  I held her hand for a very long time.  It was hard to leave.  I didn’t want to leave her there by herself.  Finally though, I had to.

Until we meet again..

On the way out of the hospital we stopped at the nurse’s station to say thank you and complete the final paperwork. I was exhausted yet wired.  My uncle Mark and I stopped to visit with another aunt and uncle for a little while.  We then made our way to my grandmother’s house.

I received the honor of selecting the clothing and jewelry that my grandmother would wear for her burial. I even selected the rhinestone pin that said “PACKERS” on it. She wore it on her scarf.   My grandmother was an avid Green Bay Packers fan. 

My Uncle Mark was standing in the kitchen and was quick to point out the glass dish above the sink where she had wanted me to put her rings so they wouldn’t fall into the sink.  Her family ring was still sitting in it. I am now the owner of my grandmother’s ring dish.

The rest of that day and the days that followed were exhausting.  My family survived each other. I admit that it was awkward meeting with extended family that I had not seen in years. Mostly because I felt like I should have been able to remember their name even though I was little the last time that I had seen them.  We also don’t all get along. It’s a shame but what can you do?

I made it through the viewing and the funeral.  I was thankful for all of my friends whom I consider family, that supported through this time. Most notably my friend, David Deavel and his family,  for having a mass said for the repose of her soul.  That was very special to us.   Also, my pastor Sam Barrington whose humor kept my spirits lifted and kept me going during the viewing.  I never did get Penguin Point chicken. Catholic Guilt ( which is real ) kept me from having it since I couldn’t stop thinking about it while the Alter Rosary prayed the Rosary after the viewing.

It took me a long time to write this piece. I struggled with even writing about it at all. There were a lot of parts to the story that I omitted for the sake of dignity.  I felt that it was necessary, however, to share the more important details.

We are not alone when we die.  Even if no one is physically with us when we pass away, the people that we loved in our lives who have gone before us do come back to get us and lead us home.    After this experience.  I am no longer afraid.  I know for a fact that there will be people waiting for me.   It was a blessing to know that my grandmother was comforted in the end.

It doesn’t matter to me what anyone’s opinion is.  You can say that my grandmother was hallucinating and blame the medication or the fact that her body was shutting down and she was dying.  Or you can accept the reality that my grandmother was not on a heavy dose of medication and that our God is a loving God who allows us the comfort of our loved ones, past and present at the time of our deaths.

We truly are surrounded with love as we leave this life and enter into the next.

Related Posts


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.