Open Access: Reflecting on My Grandmother’s Death

February 24, 2018

A year ago, I wrote an article about my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and how I wished euthanasia could have been an option for her.

Last week, my grandmother died. All things considered, she had a good death. She gasped for air and fell off her chair, and by the time a nurse ran over to her, she was gone. Given the alternative, in which she would have declined further, I am grateful for my grandmother’s death. It was a blessing.

Still, I can’t help but think about the last years of her life. Grandma came to the United States to enjoy a life of freedom, and instead she was almost immediately incarcerated by her disease. She spent fifteen years unable to be left alone, and she spent her final year in a state-run nursing home. By the time she died, she couldn’t form a whole sentence, needed help walking, and could sit for hours—probably even days—if no one moved her.

Imagine, for a moment, being her during those last years. She was surrounded by voices speaking a language she did not understand, unable to express when she was hungry or needed to use the bathroom. Nurses came in and grabbed her to move her because she didn’t understand anything they said. Other than this, she sat in a chair in her room, all day.

People came in and hugged her—she didn’t know who they were. Imagine a stranger introducing herself as your daughter. You think your daughter is still five years old, but here she is with her own daughter. You want to say that she is lying, but the words don’t come.

She was, indisputably, in Hell, and now the Hell is over. For this, I am thankful. I am thankful that her death caused her no more pain.

But still, the pain she suffered could have been avoided. She did have to die, but she didn’t have to suffer the way that she did.

I think about, then, an alternative scenario: I think about her hugging all of us and telling us that she loved us when she still knew who we were. She could have written a letter for me to open when I’m older with everything she wanted me to know. We would have played her favorite music from childhood. Her sister would come visit and say goodbye. We would all hold hands.

Then, she would take a pill and fall asleep, dying soon after.

We would cry, of course, but we would know it was what she wanted, and that she didn’t suffer. Maybe this could have happened if she had lived in the Netherlands or in Belgium, if the law had allowed her euthanasia. She would have been able to avoid the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, minimizing her suffering.  

It is, of course, a difficult process, a balancing act of sorts. For the last few years, my grandmother would not have been able to consent to such a procedure, and to perform it without consent would have been immoral. I don’t know how this would work—perhaps having a patient sign a legal document, like an Advanced Directive, giving family members guidelines for arranging their passing—but I know it is immoral not to consider it.

My grandmother’s last years did not add to her life or to our memory of her. All they did for any of us was cause pain, and they were entirely unnecessary.

As it was, I did not cry at my grandmother’s funeral. I had done my grieving long before she died.

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