It puts everything in perspective. We only have a finite time on this earth. Even for those who believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or another religion where the immortal soul continues into an afterlife, coming face to face with death stops us in our tracks.
Although we may have near death experiences throughout our lives – hopefully few and far between – we most likely will face it the form of an elderly relative’s passing.
This is what happened to me, when my grandmother passed away this past spring at the incredible age of 104. She lived through two wars and was a refugee each time as a result. The second time, she moved to the U.S. and started life anew, a stranger in a strange land.
In contrast to China, Americans and many other Westerners put the elderly into nursing homes paid by the government once the effort of care by family members becomes too great. In Asia, the elderly usually rely on their adult children for comfort and economic means of support. It shows the emphasis placed on youth and vigor to affect the future, as opposed to age and experience to reflect on the past. It’s hard to say if this is right or wrong. It’s just the value system in place here.
My grandmother had been in assisted living apartments and then full fledged nursing homes with medical staff for almost a decade before she died. The family would visit her from time to time, but since she didn’t speak English, she could only communicate with my parents. As my parents aged and had their own work, health, and other personal issues, visits became more infrequent. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren visited even less frequently, as they had their own lives and couldn’t communicate beyond an awkward smile. Her mental decline became even more extreme than her physical decline.
When the end came, it started with a call from the nursing home telling us that my grandmother had problems eating. We visited and discovered she would get food stuck in her windpipe. My mother said this is a common occurrence leading to death, as it quickly leads to pneumonia in the elderly.
A few days later, we visited again. We knew that it was the end, and my grandmother knew it also. A staunch and lifelong Catholic, she wanted her last rites of the Catholic faith.
When the priest came, I saw on my grandmother’s face the look of fear mixed with hope. Fear of death. Hope of salvation. And perhaps, I imagine, a bit of relief from the burden of living in the constant drudgery of a nursing home, away from family and friends and her own culture.
I pray to God that her soul is at rest.