Death comes in two forms: the ones that happen that you aren't expecting, striking like lightning from a clear sky and the ones that creep up, the ones you see coming but can't do anything about. It's hard to say which is worse. I don't think knowing it's coming prepares us for it any more than when it just happens, and I don't think having it just happen lessens the pain of it not being drawn out. It really just comes down to the importance of the person in our lives.
When I was in high school, my uncle put my great-grandmother, who would sit and watch TV eating sticks of butter like candy bars, in a nursing home. She was in her 90s, and she couldn't be left alone during the day while he was at work; there was really no other option for him. When I was a little kid, my great-grandmother had been a significant figure in my life. She liked to take my cousins and me on long walks down the dusty east Texas road out in the country where she lived. We'd pick her wild flowers for the dining table. She made the best biscuits and gravy in this spiral arm. And the best squirrel dumplings. Granted, I've never even heard of anyone else making squirrel dumplings, but I'm sure hers would be the best even if that was a thing.
She was old, and she wasn't in the greatest of health. Basically, she moved from her bed to her chair and back again. She had a walker, but it barely fit through the old farm house they lived in, and she'd mostly quit using it anyway. She couldn't get in and out of bed without help, and the chair she sat in to watch TV was right next to her bed, so, really, she'd lived in that one little spot for at least a year before my uncle decided he couldn't take care of her by himself anymore. She told him (and everyone) that if he put her in a nursing home she would die. She was born in the house she lived in, and she wanted to die in it, too. He put her in the nursing home. Two weeks later, she was dead.
I was sad when she died, but I wasn't devastated. She had faded from being important in my life as I got older and she got more enfeebled. She was old (really old), and everyone was expecting her to die (although no one really expected her to just die right away after going to the nursing home). I figured that I was just prepared for her death and that's why it didn't hurt so much. However, my grandfather was devastated over the death of his mother-in-law. I remember him crying (I'd never seen him cry before) and bending over and kissing her forehead in the casket. That made me more sad than my own sadness.
But here's a more tangible demonstration of how death can affect us:
During the 1st semester of my sophomore year at college, my paternal grandfather died. I don't remember it being anything anyone expected. In fact, my maternal grandfather was struggling with cancer at the time, and most of our attention was on him. The truth is, we weren't at all close to my father's side of the family. Not even my father was close to my father's side of the family, so, when his father died, it was an obligation to be fulfilled and nothing more. But I had a friend, one of my best friends, at school that wanted to be supportive, and he came to the funeral. He's actually the person to pay attention to in this story. See, from his perspective, we didn't react any differently to this death than he did. And it was true; we didn't.
I moved back home with my parents during the middle of my sophomore year, which is another story entirely, but we can simplify it by saying it was just a lot cheaper than living on campus. It all had to do with the school cafeteria and how bad the food was, and it lead to my friend, the one that had gone to the funeral, rooming at my parents house for a semester. That, also, is another story entirely. The significance of it is that he was living with us when my maternal grandfather died in the spring.
As I said, my maternal grandfather had had cancer, a particularly aggressive type of back cancer, but the doctor had said that they'd found it early enough that everything should be fine. He said this to use all the time. I should also say that my maternal grandfather was, in many ways, the most important figure in my life. He was the one that read to me when I was little. The same few books over and over again. I'd sit in his lap smelling his unique mechanic odor. It probably wasn't unique, but I didn't know anyone else that smelled that way, and I've never known anyone else that smelled that way, even other mechanics. My mom didn't get married until I was four; we lived in my grandparents' house prior to that; my grandfather was the "father" I knew. I didn't know until later (after he died) that I had been his favorite.
It was a Monday night, and my family had been to see my grandfather in the hospital. He was barely the man I had known, and he was in a lot of pain. It was pretty horrible to see him that way, but the doctor was saying, even that night he said it, he was going to recover. Still, as we were getting in the car to leave, I said to my mother that it would be better for my grandfather to leave than to be in so much pain, and my grandfather had been saying that he was ready to go; it's just that no one else was ready for him to go. He was, for lack of a better way of putting it (and no one knew this at the time), the glue that held the whole family together.
Wednesday morning I was taking a bath (no showers in our house) and getting ready for the commute to school when the phone rang. I knew what that call was as soon as it started to ring, and I'd already broken down in the tub before my mom was off the phone with the news that my grandfather was dead. I was broken. It was like something snapped inside of me, and I didn't know what to do. My whole family was similarly devastated.
And there was my friend stuck in this house that had become some weird alien landscape to him. He'd been with us when my paternal grandfather died, and he expected the same sort of reaction from this death. He wasn't prepared for what happened and couldn't really deal with it. That morning as we were driving to school (one state over and nearly an hour away), I wasn't really in the car with him. I was just a leaking shell.
I didn't cry at all when my paternal grandfather died. I don't even think my dad cried when his dad died, but my family didn't stop crying when my maternal grandfather died. For my friend, it was like someone had thrown him out into a lake of tears, and he didn't know how to swim in it. He didn't know how to reach out to any of us, and, really, we didn't want him to. I just wanted to be left alone. Having to go to school at all was painful enough, but it was college, and college doesn't care about anything as trivial as death. College just wants to get all deep and talk about it a lot.
I can't describe in this space how deeply into me that death went. It really did break something in me. Maybe it was just my heart, but I don't think so. It was one of those instances, though, where you can see it coming, but you just can't prepare for it. My mother had been telling me that I should be prepared, but I kept clinging to the words of the doctor. I couldn't accept that my papa would die, so I just chose on some level to dismiss that as a possibility. That Monday night was the first time I'd even come close to acknowledging that he could die, and, when he died on Wednesday, I blamed myself. My words. So did my mother. Not that she said it that way, but she kept reminding me of what I had said.
Eventually, life continues. Well, it keeps on continuing no matter what, but, eventually, you creep back into it. What choice do you have? Later, after I'd recovered some semblance of humanity, my friend told me how freaked out he'd been by the whole situation. I'm gonna compare it to when you're walking up stairs in the dark and you think there's one more step but there's not. That feeling you have right then when you expect your foot to touch the next step but there's nothing there... that's how he felt, except it just kept going, that feeling. Like he'd stepped into some kind of void and kept falling and couldn't get his footing back until we did. His only way of dealing with it was to kind of avoid me at school, because he couldn't cope with my grief.
And I get it. When my mother-in-law died a couple of years ago, I had to go through that with my wife. There had been a long fight with pancreatic cancer, and, even though we knew that my mother-in-law had very slim chances of making it past six months, when she did make it past six months and then a year and, then, 18 months, it became harder and harder to accept that she would succumb. So, even though we knew it would come, we didn't believe in it. And the only reason I was able to cope with my wife's grief over the death of her mother was that I'd been through it before. I understood. My friend had never been through anything like that, so he didn't understand. He had no idea of the depth of the wound.
I think death is not just a thing that happens to people when they die; it's also an emotion. Like... like the opposite of love. There's really no other way to look at it, because only those two things affect us so deeply. Strike us to our cores and shatter us on the inside. Even though people can see what's going on, there's no way they can reach in and help put us right. The best they can do is be there. Be available. Of course, it helps to have been through it to be able to understand that. Because, really, the trite words don't help. The "he's in a better place" or the "he's at peace" or "he'll always be with you" are empty sounds that only help the person saying them.
Grief, real grief, is a tough thing. It stabs into you, becomes a part of you, rolls around in your insides. You can't just take it out or turn it off. Those of you out there that have gone through this kind of thing will know what I'm talking about; you others... well, you think you do; you think you know, but, the truth it, you don't. You can't. And no one can tell you what it's like. It would be like me trying to explain what peanut butter peppermint bars taste like, but, really, the only way to know is to taste it for yourself.