My 96 year-old grandmother is dying and I’m having a lot of difficult emotions. She’s refused to let me visit her over the last few weeks and, now that it’s reached the final days, I’ve been dithering because she hasn’t requested my presence or said anything about what she wants me to do.
So I’ve been wondering if I should just get on a train and go to see her anyway, not knowing whether she’ll even be conscious or aware of me, or whether my coming will cause her distress because she doesn’t want me to see her like this. But if I don’t go, I’m worried that I’ll regret it, maybe for the rest of my life. I’m frustrated, angry with her for what I experience as her controlling behaviour, guilty about feeling angry with her, and also guilty about the fact that I don’t really want to go because I don’t want to go through another experience like the one I had with Dad just eleven weeks ago. Death can bring up so many conflicting emotions.
However, I’ve realised that my suffering in this situation has a lot to do with attachment to ideas about what grandparents should be like and what our relationships with them should be like. Somewhere in my mind is a fantasy of a loving grandmother who dies peacefully, but first calls me to her bedside to hold her hand, to be blessed and accepted and told that she loves me. Of course this fantasy is all about what my ego wants and not about the reality of my dying grandmother.
When I put this fantasy to one side, I have to admit that my grandmother has always been a spiky character: stubborn, strong-willed, and at times even ruthless in her determination to live her life her way. I spoke to her on the phone yesterday and while she did tell me she loved me (after I said it first!), she also said that she didn’t have anything to say to me, which hurt my feelings.
I don’t doubt that she loves me and she’s always been supportive in her way, but her acceptance of me has only ever been partial – she disapproved of my undertaking postgraduate study and I’ve never had the courage to come out to her as gay or introduce her to my partner for fear of her reaction. Her homophobic and also her racist views have always upset me.
We’ve never had an emotionally close relationship, but she’s always been a powerful presence in my life. I suppose an apt metaphor for my relationship with her can be found in the sweaters that she used to knit for us when we were children, sweaters that were warm and durable, but also a bit scratchy and which had neck openings so tight that we felt like we were getting our ears pulled off every time we put them on.
She’s a proud woman who’s made the best of an unremittingly hard life. Some of her actions have had terrible consequences, in particular separation from her child for over 20 years. But those actions were taken in the context of options limited by the laws of the time that treated women as unequal to men. She’s suffered extremely painful health problems in recent years with incredible courage and dignity and has spent the last few months of her long life watching her only son die of lung cancer. Part of my grief is about the starkness of her suffering and my wish that things had been better for her, but to all this I know she would say, “Never mind, it can’t be helped”.
At the same time, I admire the way she’s always claimed the sexual and romantic fulfilment that’s been so important to her life (even now she has a boyfriend); she saw her grandchildren grow up, the birth of her great-grandson, and she has a devoted step-granddaughter as well. She’s loved gardening, knitting, cooking, and socialising and I seem to have inherited those last two from her, as well as my smile and the underlying bone-structure of my face.
I’ve now decided to go and see her tomorrow whatever happens. She may or may not be aware of me, but weighing up the stress of the visit with the possibility of the life-long regret of not trying to see her before the end, I’ve decided to risk the stress.
This isn’t about her accepting me so much as it’s about me accepting her for who she is.