To Have Loved and Lost

Despite the existence of thousands of words in the dictionary, there are no words that can fully express the feelings of loss and mourning. Nor are there any photos, music, videos, and other media that can help prepare a person on what to feel, what to say, how to act, or how to deal when they encounter death in the family for the first time. Unless you’ve experienced pain, suffering, heartache, loneliness, and other negative emotions, you cannot fully relate to what you see in movies, hear in music, or read in poetry and prose. Having attended several wakes during my lifetime, I’ve always been hesitant and cautious when attending, primarily because I did not know how to behave around the bereaved. I would dress appropriately and offer condolences to the family, but I could not precisely relate to their loss. Until now.

Eleven hours ago, my paternal grandmother passed away in her bed at my aunt’s house. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer almost three years ago, and had undergone surgery as an attempt to remove the cancer cells. Back then, we were fearful of her demise—the illness was not something we expected, given her old age. After her surgery, we were unsure of God’s plans for her life, but we were hoping for a full recovery. As it was, God blessed her with two years’ life extension. It was only late last year that I was informed that the cancer cells had spread to other parts of her body, and that it was possible she might never recover. Later, the fluids that filled both her lungs had to be drained—twice. And then last week, my youngest brother told me that our grandmother had been brought to the emergency room because she had difficulty breathing. My sister, who is studying in London, expressed her intention to fly home to see our grandmother, perhaps for the last time. Sensing the dire situation (and despite my initial hesitation because of financial issues), I immediately booked a flight to my hometown as well.

To make the long story short,  our grandmother lingered for four days after my sister’s and my arrival. The last four days were probably the longest days of my life. Everyone in the family were in a somber mood, because we knew that she could go at any time. Our cousins who had gone abroad just before our grandmother was admitted to the ER, had returned yesterday and noon today. Almost everyone in the family had the opportunity to see her and talk to her, hoping she might open her eyes and speak.

But just moments after our cousin (the last one to arrive from a trip abroad) spoke to our grandmother, our grandmother finally passed on. It was as if she was held out as long as she could, in order to see everyone. The nurse on duty today had expressed her surprise on how our grandmother slipped away. Her vitals simply stopped (not gradually as the nurse expected), and her final breath was shallow—as if she was breathing normally.

Indeed, our grandmother looked peaceful in her eternal sleep. Even in her last moments, she was spared from pain normally associated with cancer. Yes, there were many discomforts for her these past days (intravenous therapy, nasogastric intubation, and tubefeeding), but I’ve never seen her face contort from extreme pain. She even tried to speak last Friday and yesterday, despite having no more voice. Aside from that, our grandmother was silent, struggling to take deep breaths to keep on living. When the nurse finally declared her gone, I still couldn’t believe she had left so quietly and suddenly. Many of us were of the mind that she looked as though she was asleep—that her breathing was too faint or too shallow to notice.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the alternating feelings of (slight) anxiousness, numbness, worry, sadness, confusion, and relief. One moment we were shedding tears for her weak and dying body, the next we would make jokes about our grandmother’s imminent arrival in heaven. Indeed, the loss proved the existence of the “emotional rollercoaster.” And I expect I’ll be experiencing more of it this coming days. Now I’m beginning to feel the importance of having more of my friends and family around me, to provide support and care in this time of mourning. I’m learning the value of the prayers and words of encouragement offered by acquaintances and close friends, as well as the importance of expressing feelings in ways I am capable of.

Each person mourns in their own way. For me (so far), it is through tears and music. Remembering how our grandmother looks like and how she spoke, or moved when she was still alive has brought tears to my eyes these past few days. When my brother played Christian music on the grand piano and I tried to sing along with him, I found myself feeling a rush of strong emotions I never knew I could feel. It was as though the music held new meanings for me, and I couldn’t stop crying. I would cry until I had no more tears left, and go on doing whatever I was working on before I started crying. I am not sure how I and my family’s life would change after the funeral and cremation are over, but I am thankful that finally my grandmother is free from her illness, and I am once again reminded to live a full life with Christ, just like my grandmother did. And these feelings of indecision, confusion, and grief has made me realize the meaning of true mourning for a loved one.

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