My grandmother passed away yesterday. She was 84 and succumbed to congestive heart failure. She lived in St. Charles, Missouri just a few miles away from my parents, my brother and his wife, and so many other members of my extended family. For the past few months, she’d been living in an assisted living facility. And prior to that, she was in a retirement community. She moved there a few years ago after living alone for over 20 years. My grandfather passed away when I was in 8th grade.
As a physician, seeing the situation of a close family member go through the last few years and, finally, pass away is complicated. You see the situation objectively. You see all the medications she’s on and her test results. You understand that her heart is failing and it’s only a matter of time before she succumbs. You see her mind slowly failing as dementia takes over. And that’s your own grandmother. The wonderful woman who’s always meant the world to you since you were born. And then you see all of this emotionally. You see the joy she got from moving from her lonely, lonely home to the old folks home where she lived amongst newfound friends. She’s still my grandmother, the sweetest, most gentle woman in all the world with a failing heart.
When she went into the hospital a few days ago, a family decision was made to just provide comfort care. By far, it was the right move to make. Nobody deserves to die with all the bells and whistles modern medicine can throw at them. I wasn’t able to be there to oversee her comfort. As a doctor, that’s simply what I wanted to do. I just wanted to make sure she was getting enough morphine to ward off the air hunger. I wanted to see that she wasn’t struggling and she was at peace.
As a grandson, I just wanted to hold her hand as she passed away. But I live in NYC and couldn’t make it home in time. And honestly, I wanted the last vision of my grandmother to be from a few weeks ago during Thanksgiving when I left her in her room to head back to NYC. I said “so long grandma.” She gave me the sweetest smile and the simplest little wave. And that is how I will always remember the most wonderful grandmother a grandson could ask for. Not as a doctor, but as a grandson who loved her dearly.