I was 22 years old when I sat with my grandmother as she was dying. There were four generations of our family in the room, from my two year old nephew to my mom and her brothers, to my grandmother, whose health had been taken steadily downhill by Alzheimer’s for the last six years. She had stopped eating, and the angels from hospice had come in to help us make sure she was as comfortable as possible.
In her last breaths, she raised her eyes, and I felt that she was looking at the most beautiful sight in the world. She seemed unaware of those of us in the room, and her face lit up as she released her final exhale. I remember being so curious about what she could have seen as she was released through the invisible screen into what lies beyond.
I found my perspective on death changed through that experience. I understand that it was as close to an ideal situation as possible; my grandmother was at home, she was surrounded by loved ones, and she didn’t seem to be in any pain.
As a culture, we tend to shudder at the thought of death. We go to great lengths to prolong life, using incredible advances in medical technology to keep bodies alive. New research, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that death may not be as grim as we imagine to those who are dying.
In two separate studies, researchers looked at the words used by terminally ill patients in their blog posts and poetry written by inmates on death row. They found that as both populations neared death, the words they chose to use became increasingly positive and less negative, as compared to groups who were instructed to imagine they were nearing death.
Kurt Gray, psychological scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the authors of the study explains, "In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning."
This research offers a chance to examine our perspective on death. My life has been touched by death more often than I could have imagined in the last couple of years. Death has arrived on it’s own terms, as it does, and taken those whose lives did not feel complete. I’ve felt and seen the agony of grief, the seemingly impossibility of carrying on in the wake of death.
It offers some solace to consider that death is not as tragic for those who are dying as it is for those who are left behind. I will always remember the sudden clarity and light in my grandmother’s eyes as she looked so far beyond those of us in the room, and into the unknown. I wonder what she may have seen. I know that each of us, in our own time, will come to have that view for ourselves, and that, just possibly, we do not need to fear the inevitable.