Sweetness in the Bittersweet: The Final Stage of Life

As my grandma sits in her wheelchair, I lean in to say goodbye before I return home – 3,000 miles away from room #39 at Oak Hill Manor. We touch our foreheads together and I look into her eyes over the top of my glasses. Only inches away, she looks into mine.

“You are my perfect pigeon,” she says.

I laugh to myself because “pigeon” isn’t a pet name Grandma Gene has called me before, and certainly is not the choice bird for a compliment. I’m not sure what word she meant to say. But at her current stage of life, any connection is welcomed by me. I kiss her cheek softly for what may be the last time.

This moment and many others that could be sad or melancholy have actually been endearing. As my grandma’s physical and mental capacities shift, I’m reminded of both my mom and my partner Kate’s final journeys, when they seemed to age many decades in mere weeks due to cancer. The difference is that my grandmother really is in her 90s. And that she has Alzheimer’s. But otherwise, the signposts that she’s nearing the finish line in this body actually resemble theirs.

Perhaps most people resemble each other as this cycle of life is winding down. The way they move, speak, and blink more slowly – seemingly with little self-consciousness. I imagine it’s just what happens as the body and mind do what they do. And while witnessing this stage is often bittersweet, it is the sweetness that stays with me and makes my heart smile.

Nearing the great transition

When I come to see Grandma Gene, she’s slumped over in her wheelchair. I squat down in front of her, say “Hi Grandma, it’s Jennifer” and she raises her head. “Jennifer!” she exclaims with surprise, the same way she’s said it for all these years, every time I’ve called or shown up at her front door (even when she was expecting me).

On this day, her eyes are what I notice right away – that bright look that I can only describe as both fully alive and present, and yet simultaneously elsewhere. They are filled with a dream-like warmth. This is, of course, in the good moments, the ones without discomfort or fear. It is as if I am looking into my mom’s eyes, Kate’s eyes, and the eyes of others I’ve known as they near the great transition.

When someone ages or when cancer takes over, so much of the letting go is about shifts in personality and what we expect as typical behaviors, as well as the physical and mental decline. With a sudden death, we tend to remember the person as they were. But when there’s a window of time, they change. They become someone we take care of or help or are patient with or have compassion for. Or they become someone we take pity on or with whom we get frustrated because they no longer do things or think the way they used to.

Touching the tenderness

In my experience, if I can touch into my tenderness, these changes have become “endearing” – even the grumpiness or repetitive habits. The return to childlike mannerisms becomes, for me, the “sweet” in a bittersweet situation. For others, it may be the “bitter.” At the risk of sounding patronizing, they become cute. If I couldn’t see the cuteness, I would be watching only the suffering and obvious symptoms of dying. So I prefer embracing the aspects of someone becoming like a child again.

On her last morning, my partner Kate told me about a dream she had the night before. As she shared it, she said “They had to . . . (pause) . . . expedite? . . . (pause) the blood.” She had a quizzical look on her face that seemed to ask if this was the right word or if she used it correctly. “Expedite is a big word, isn’t it?” I said to acknowledge this. She nodded her head slowly in agreement, with wonderment in her eyes. Yes, a big word. My heart overflowed with love rather than sadness. She was so precious as she navigated all that was slipping away.

My mom had equally adorable moments as her energy levels and cognition shifted. One day I was looking through a magazine, and showed her a fold-out photograph of hundreds of pink flamingoes in the wetlands. “It’s sooooo beauuuuuuuuuutiful!” she said, her eyes growing large as she gasped. I smiled at the authenticity of her awe. An awe that each of us can have every single day, but that somehow surfaces as we near our last one.

I admit, I have also seen the sweetness when they closed their eyes in exhaustion, or made faces of disgust before having to swallow yet another pill. How can this be endearing? Perhaps I simply hope someone will find me endearing and treat me with kindness in the future? But I think the biggest part of it for me is their behaviors are “unfiltered” and in the moment. No holding back. There seems to be less self-censoring in showing happiness, awe, disgust, irritation, and yes, even pain and struggle.

Gifts of the final stage of life

There’s a realness in that final stage of life – whether due to cancer, or other health issues, or old age – that is more present and unaffected than we tend to experience most of our lives. It’s beyond the socialization of what’s polite, appropriate, or expected. Rather than being children who we are trying to socialize in a certain way, they are undoing this life-long process, and we watch it unfold – decades upon decades of niceties or self-consciousness falling away. Spitting out disliked food, speaking truths like children, being honest about what is desired.

I love this about the end of the life cycle as I’ve experienced it thus far. There’s a raw beauty in it. No, it’s not ideal when there’s pain or it’s intense or cruel to anyone involved. But still, it’s more real and vulnerable than usual. We have much to learn from people at this stage, as they slip into a different reality, as their perceptions change.

I am amazed at this strange way that life reverses itself, like the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as the body is nearing its end by becoming more like its beginning. Full sentences become too much effort and people stop saying as much unless there are a lot of pauses and space. Or they use their hands to point or show rather than speaking, like a toddler before the words come easily. For me, the importance of patience and identifying with the humanness has made all the difference when these times could otherwise have been more difficult to endure. As bittersweet moments became endearing, I learned to see life in new ways – one of the gifts of witnessing the final stage of life.

The fullness of living & dying

I stand up to leave my grandmother’s room and she says “Enjoy dinner at the house with your uncle.” Then she adds, “Tell him I’m having corn.”

I laugh out loud because her delivery is classic, and it sounds like a not-so-subtle “guilt trip” commentary about the food at the nursing home, but she quickly adds, “No, I like corn!” so that I know it’s not a complaint. She smirks and looks at me with the same kind of big eyes that make me fall in love with young children.

My heart is about to burst with love. Just like it did with my mom. Just like it did with Kate. This is what I know to be the uncensored truth, and it makes my heart big enough to hold the losses with gratitude for the fullness of living and dying.

“You and me, always” says Grandma Gene as I walk backward toward the door and blow her a kiss.

“Always,” I repeat back to her. “Always, always.” Yes, I will be her pigeon, forever.

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/wampirek

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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14 thoughts on “Sweetness in the Bittersweet: The Final Stage of Life

  1. Hello Jennifer!

    What a beautifully crafted post. I very much appreciate reading your perspective on a topic, that I’d say, most people would run far away and hide from. To see the beauty and endearing aspects of dying is so amazing. Your story about you and your granny is so sweet and memorable.

    Much love and light to you! xoxox

    • Thanks, Lora. People seem more and more willing to talk about the topic of death lately, but maybe that’s just because it’s the focus on many of my conversations! (And PS – For some reason, you saying “granny” makes me hear your voice after all of these years).

  2. Hi Dearest Jen-Ingrid and I have just read your musings re your beloved nun and also your grandmother. We were touched and gave me anyways, a new aspect to consider, the positive instead of the negative, when a beloved dies. We are thinking of you!! Love iris

    • Hi Iris. Thanks for your comments! Will be so great to talk in person sometime soon. May catch you in October ; )

  3. I , not able to express myself as well as you, have said the dying time of Grammie Annie and Grandpa Paul ” was the best of times and the worst of times”. The feelings were intense with the reality of how they were tethered between heaven and earth. The spirit of love between us was so real that it is still with me even now. The tether is strong. I now feel its strength in the simplest times of daily living. I know I am blessed for having this experience.

    I am so proud of you for seeing this at your young age and sharing it with your sincere appreciation of its true value in the beauty of life.
    Love with along warm hug, Aunt Maryanne

    • Nothing like being seen and understood by family! Just re-reading your comments and so grateful for all the ways you have helped me connect to my spirituality.

      You express yourself beautifully, by the way ; )

  4. What a beautiful set of thoughts, Jen, so well expressed and rich in meaning. I plan to read this through again and again. When we learn lessons like these ones, about death and transition, it gives so much goodness to the daily routine of a plain and healthy life. Thank you so much.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Indeed, the “plain and healthy” life is so rich when we remember to notice. Glad you enjoyed this post.

  5. beautiful jen… all too often our lives are filled with distractions. as i have aged and see the changes that brings, “old people” are no longer “out there”, but MY future.
    this is an interesting experience, to reclaim what has always been there… along with the fear and sobriety that brings… AND the realization that every moment is a rare and precious gift. thanks for the reminders!

    • Thanks, Todd. One of my favorite things about getting older and about being with the dying process of others is the reminder of how to LIVE. Without that perspective, I imagine I wouldn’t enjoy the journey nearly as much (or it would become awfully depressing). Thanks for your comments!

  6. Jen I find that in my work with animals, it is the same process as what I have experienced with humans. Long pauses, occasional confusion, tenderness, old behaviors surfacing not seen for years and long looks shared. Precious time indeed.

    • Raven, I hadn’t thought about that before with animals. Thank you! So amazing to be aware of the deep connection with the four-leggeds (and winged ones) in this way and in their process.

  7. After the death of my dear friend, Peter, I’ve been thinking about a lot of the things you mention here, Jennifer. How his body aged to that of a 90 year old man in a matter of weeks. How he was so real, so exposed and willing to show me all of who he was…and still is…and how that authenticity blessed me in a way that I hold dear, now that he has passed to another dimension. Now that his contact is full, yet silent. Once he said that a friend was having “a momentary moment” and I found it so cute. My heart burst open then, and a thousand other times as well. May our hearts remain open as we learn about life and death…how continuous and seamless they are.

    • Thanks, Ana, for sharing your own experience. Yes, there’s something about how the process “opens” us that I find so powerful. For myself, I hope that I become more and more “willing” – as you say – to show others all of who I am, starting now. I love the “momentary moment” – it’s the little things that make our hearts smile, isn’t it?