Seven Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandmother’s Death

Life Lessons

In death we often look for the meaning in life. As my grandmother faced her last days she often told me she lived a good life. She didn’t speak much, but she definitely wanted me to know she felt she lived a good life. But what did that really mean? What does it mean when you say you’ve lived a good life?

The truth is it wasn’t for me to figure out why she believed she lived a good life. I didn’t know everything about her life and my assumptions as to what went in to that statement would just be supposition. There is no “Good Life” meter. What would make a good life for one person may be a miserable existence for someone else. It’s a combination of the spiritual, emotional, and physical. But no one really knows the formula.

But in her death, I learned a few things about life. And I’d like to share them with you.

7 Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandmother’s Death

1. What we do will often matter more than what we say. This can be interpreted in two ways. See, my grandma didn’t say “I love you” very often. But I never doubted that she loved me very much. She often showed her love not only to me, but many others, with food. It was a common thread throughout her life to cook for others. That’s how she showed her love. The diversity in her friends was a reflection of how she saw the world. Helping others, a friendly smile, standing up for what we believe in are often heard louder than any words that pass our lips. At the same time, you can’t say one thing to make yourself look good while doing the opposite. At her funeral, few people recalled any specific words she said. Rather, they all remembered how she made them feel.

2. Speak your mind even if it’s not popular or polite. If you’ve ever spent time around people in their 80s and 90s, or even some people in their 60s and 70s, you’ve likely heard them say things that make you want to apologize to everyone within earshot. It’s not that they’re intending to be mean or rude or hurtful, they’re just telling you what they’re thinking. The filter’s gone. It’s a trait we often admire in children, but stifle as time passes. We’re taught very early not to say things that will hurt people’s feelings. And in the process, we end up silencing our voice. Sure, we don’t need to be mean or rude or hurtful. But why can’t we be honest? I had the privilege of spending many afternoons at her senior living center. I was often shocked at how matter of fact the residents were when they spoke to each other, to the staff, or, sometimes, even me. After her death, though, as I walk through the complex those same people that caught me off guard have stopped me and offered their condolences and have shared heartfelt stories of the friendship they had developed with my grandmother. The filters may be gone, but the respect isn’t.

3. You’ll never regret traveling. For a child of the depression, my grandma traveled relatively early in her life. With older sisters out of the house, she was able to parlay that into a few trips to visit them. When she married my grandpa he was in the military and her life of travel began in earnest. Until the very end, it was stories of the friends made and the sites seen while traveling that often brought so much joy. Whether it was a drive to visit her sister in the heartland, a car trip with the grandkids to Disneyland, several trips to the Middle East, weeks-long excursions to China, Greece, Thailand, Canada, or Alaska and the Bearing Strait there was always a way to go. And from each trip there were memories and stories that were with her until the end.

4. Be Generous. I actually learned this from my mom, who learned it from my grandma. As I’m closing up my grandmother’s affairs I’ve found cards, letters, and notes from people she’s helped throughout her life. At her funeral, a very dear friend of hers spoke about how her kindness and friendship helped him at a key time in his life. Generosity isn’t about money. It’s about giving of ourselves unselfishly. Whether it’s our time, our love, words of encouragement, a smile, or a gentle touch, it’s nearly impossible to be over-generous. People remember our generosity and likely will continue the cycle of giving.

5. Money should never be used to control people. This is a tough one because so many people do use money this way. If you’re going to help people financially, don’t attach strings. It’s fine to set parameters if the money is to be paid back. But don’t think that money gives you the right to control their lives and choices. At the same time, we can’t let money control our lives either. Don’t get me wrong, having money is great. But if money (the presence or absence of it) holds you back from being happy then that’s a problem.

6. Take risks. There’s a difference between taking risks and engaging in risky behavior. Taking risks is about challenging yourself. Pushing your limits. Testing your own boundaries. Taking risks is about leaping with faith in your ability even if you can come up with 6,827 perfectly logical reasons why you shouldn’t. Taking risks is when you’re not sure but you have a great support system of people who want to see you succeed to your highest potential and not settle for the status quo.

7. Be ¬†true to yourself. People will come and go throughout your life. Sure, some may stay for a very long time. But the reality is that over our however-many-years there will be very few people who will be part of our life for multiple decades. If we become what other people think we should be, we’ll be constantly changing to suit everyone else. Instead, even if we’re not what someone thinks we should be chances are there is a person just waiting to meet someone just like us. Quirks and all!

We should all be able to say we lived a good life!


Elder Care: From a granddaughter’s perspective

Bubbe photo

That’s my grandmother, my Bubbe. BabyGirl and I went to visit her in December because she doesn’t like to travel. Actually, she loves to travel. Only traveling now is much more complicated since she needs oxygen at night. And then there is all that TSA stuff. So, we go visit her.

I’ve mentioned my grandma before. Last year she celebrated her 90th birthday. She still lives in the only house I’ve ever known. She and my grandpa had it built in 1968. She’s a very independent woman!

Every few weeks I’ll get a call from my aunt, a neighbor, one of my Grandma’s friends asking if she’s visiting me because they can’t get a hold of her. This has been going on for about six months. And every time I tell them no and reassure them that she’s just fine, having spoken to her just days prior. They’ll sigh a sigh of relief, thank me and assure me they’ll stop by her house to be sure she’s fine.

My grandmother has outlived most people she started life with. She has buried both of her children (my mother had a stroke in her 40s and my uncle died of Lupus-related complications in his early 40s) and her husband. Of her seven siblings, only her ‘baby brother’ remains. And he’s in his 80s.

It’s almost weekly now that my grandma tells me she’s going to a funeral. I guess at 90, that’s just part of life. She has very few friends, peers, still living. Most of her friends are significantly younger. Then again, my grandma doesn’t seem to think she’s really 90!

When you’re 90 and live on your own, most people are in awe. I certainly am! After all she’s lived through the Great Depression, wars, conflicts, and 17 presidents. Woodrow Wilson was president when she was born. She’s seen the world change before her eyes. From no television to the ability to stream live events in the palm of her hand. No telephone to its ubiquity.

Yet here I am, the primary responsible party (I use that term loosely because really, my grandma is very responsible for herself) being bombarded with ‘friends’ and relatives telling me she can’t live on her own any more. They have no real reason for that other than she’s 90 and perceived to be frail.

And while I don’t like when my grandma drives, she is as good a driver as most people out there. Her hearing isn’t as keen as it once was but she’s not a danger. She drives no more crazy than she’s always driven. Actually, I think she’s more cautious now because she realizes her hearing isn’t up to par. Truth be told, she’s never caused an accident in all her driving. She’s been involved in accidents, but never the cause. So she’s got that going for her.

Most of the issues relate to her forgetfulness. Some people try to tell me she has Alzheimers. Far from it! Cancer three times, yes. Alzheimers? No. However, she does have symptoms of vascular¬†dementia. But according to her doctors it’s normal given her medical history. Nothing to worry about they keep saying.

I talk to my grandmother several times a week. Her brother talks to her every day. If ever there is a time we can’t find her for 24 hours straight I can call her local police and they’ll check on her. They know her by name. She bakes treats for the precinct every few weeks. If she hasn’t been by in awhile they stop by. It’s like a TV show when she walks in, balancing two big chocolate cakes – cheers of “Hello, Mrs. Greenberg!”, “So nice to see you, Mrs. Greenberg!” and “Thank you, Mrs. Greenberg!” echo in the stark halls.

But she’s 90, will be 91 in a few months. I know she’s not that same spry young woman who helped raise me. And regardless of my age, to her I’m still a child. Not that I’m incapable, but when it comes to some decisions she wants to make them on her own. Thankfully her brother is there to team up with me to make sure she’s making good decisions.

Our newest issue has to do with her moving out of her home. She doesn’t want to. She see no reason for it. And, honestly, I’m no so sure I disagree. Yes, it’s a lot to deal with. Sure, it is not easy making 3 meals a day. Heck I’m half her age and I have troubles making 3 meals a day! She cares for herself, drives to her appointments, visits and shopping.

Who am I to tell her she has to leave her home? I know she needs some help, but she’s not too keen on that. She keeps forgetting that she’s 90! In her mind she’s still very young. When she turned 90 she told me she was starting to feel old. Starting!

I’ve watched as some of my friends have had to find care for their aging parents. I’ve helped them pour over brochures of what look like Disney for the senior set. It’s very different because this is my grandmother, not my mother. For my uncle it’s a challenge as well because it’s his big sister. The dynamic is very different. But our desire for them to be safe is the same.

I knew this time would come. Actually I’ve been listening to people tell me what to do about it since my grandmother had her last cancer surgery nearly 3 years ago. I’ve been ignoring them for a long time. But now they’re getting very loud.

I have always had a great respect for my friends who care for their aging parents. I’ve watched how they gracefully transitioned from child to caregiver. I’ve taken mental notes, bookmarked websites and have read and read and read. And yet, I’m at a loss as to how to do this dance with my grandmother.