Sep 19, 2015

Navigating the death of older relatives

It's strange what a decision can come down to. Earlier this morning, before my coffee, I sat in my robe toying around with Kayak and Hipmunk. My grandfather is sick – he was hospitalized for a small stroke and then contracted sepsis. Two days ago, he was placed on comfort care. Everyone expects him to die soon. I am considering traveling to Michigan to see him before he goes, hence Kayak and Hipmunk. But then the strange thing: once I'm searching for flights, my decision-making becomes dominated by whether or not I could find a cheap, convenient flight.

And that's ridiculous. The impending death of my last surviving grandparent, and I'm worried about whether my flight costs \$200 or \$300? Whether I depart at 3:20 pm Thursday or 6:00 am Saturday? Three months from now, I will have no memory of these trivialities, yet they threaten to determine whether I take this trip or not.

There are other strange questions around death – should I go home for a final visit, or for the funeral alone? Perhaps both?

I don't see much purpose to funerals, but my social instincts flare up around them. Everyone will be there! A time to gather and reflect! To cherish a life! But that's not how it plays out. I envision a comfortable, inoffensive venue. Perhaps a sterile sermon. Some awkward small talk with some distant relations; some more intimate conversation with the relatives I know better. If things go well, maybe we all reminisce together for a while, play Euchre, or Hearts; games Grandpa loved.

But who is all that really for? My grandfather, who will be dead? His memory? Or maybe for the family, for those who live on?

It seems better to visit before death comes, to actually spend some time with the person before they go. Social instincts have nothing to say here: a neutral activity, they lie quiet (though perhaps there would be some yapping if I choose the visit over the funeral – visiting may be a neutral social-instinctive activity, but skipping a funeral is clearly a negative one). That's what I'm leaning towards now: institutional hospital in place of comfortable venue, quiet exchange of pleasantries instead of awkward small talk. A chance to spend a little more time with the actual person seems better than attendance at a ritualized service. Assuming I can find a good flight.

I'm embarrassed to write this. Embarrassed to turn a family situation into a shitty little internet think piece. Embarrassed by treating my grandfather, still a person in the world, as a subject for analysis.

But I'm going to publish it anyway. Silent stoicism runs deep in my family, and this is one of the places where it doesn't serve well.

And it feels like our culture lacks good vocabulary around death. Mainstream mourning rituals consist of religious veneers and corporatized banalities. So maybe this will open things up a bit.

[rereads:3, edits: spent too long finding fancy words for the second-to-last sentence, debated whether to include "on" at the beginning of the post's title – decided to drop it, became -> becomes, if -> whether]