Left to right: Toby the dog, Laura's Nan Eileen and Laura aged five.
How would you deal with the news that someone you loved was dying? Here, our Digital Officer Laura shares what helped her come to terms with her Nan’s terminal illness, and cope after she was gone.
I heard my Nan was ill at the end of February and, just a week later, she was dead. It was the longest week of my life.
The news floored me. During 2016 I had already lost my other set of grandparents, on my Mum’s side, and it just didn’t seem fair. My Nan taught me to play the piano, loved a good gossip and was everybody’s best friend. We were very close; we celebrated special occasions together without fail, holidayed regularly together and, even in my thirties, I would always spend the day with my ‘Geordie grandparents’ when I came up to the North East, where I was born, from London.
Me and Nan when I was little.
She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about five years ago, and gradually – as is Alzheimers’ wont; the most accurate metaphor I've heard is having to watch someone you love being washed steadily, day by day, out to sea – she went downhill. My Grandad was her full-time carer, standing devotedly at her side 24/7 as her memory failed, her confidence fell, and her speech and mobility worsened.
Because of the dementia, being rushed to hospital with bone marrow depression was doubly distressing, disorientating and confusing for my Nan. When, on that February evening, Mum called with the news she wouldn’t be getting better, both me and my sister asked when we could come up and be with her.
Mum patiently, gently, heartbreakingly explained that Grandad was in charge of making decisions on Nan’s behalf and that he believed it would be too upsetting for her if we were to “gather for a vigil at her bedside”. He, my parents and my aunt, who she saw more often, would be with her until the very end – but we couldn’t be.
Podcasts kept me from wondering: ‘Is she still here?’
I felt so frustrated, impotent, sad; like I was deliberately being held at arm’s length and deprived the chance to say goodbye to this wonderful woman… but also, at the same time, I understood that this was what Grandad deemed best for Nan. And he knew her better for anyone: they’d been married for over 65 years.
As I awaited daily updates from my parents about how she was getting on – first at the hospital and, two days later, the hospice where she received palliative care – I buried myself in work. Work and podcasts. They kept my mind from continuously wondering: ‘Is she still here?’ Due to the nature of my work, however, as an editor and writer of a lot of end of life content, I could not escape from the questions – so I began to seek answers.
The following podcasts around death, dying and bereavement helped me cope before, during and after my Nan passed away. I hope they speak to you, too.
The Moth: Franny’s Last Ride
The late US comic Mike DeStefano is one of my favourite Moth storytellers. In Franny’s Last Ride, he recalls how he struggled to support his wife Fran following her terminal diagnosis, particularly in her final months when she was in and out of their local hospice.
He recounts how a turning point came when his social worker took him aside and told him: “People are never dying; they live and then they die. Dying isn’t a moment. Franny feels as if you’re treating her like she’s dying and you don’t need her or love her anymore.” Appalled, Mike realised he was right: he had been withdrawing from and tiptoeing around Fran as though she were fragile or, worse, already gone. He then did all he could to made amends and step out of the ‘waiting room’ that is ‘dying’.
I tried my very best, during the last times I spent with my Nan, to treat her just the same as I used to – and it really did help. For instance, before I heard this podcast, I was reticent about telling her I loved her in case it seemed too ‘final’ a thing to say to a dying woman (daft, I know!). Afterwards, I no longer hesitated; in fact, I think it was the last thing I ever said to her.
Listen to Franny’s Last Ride
We Need to Talk About Death: Death Itself
What makes a ‘good death’? How long will it be until the end? What commonly takes place in the final days as someone declines? What about at the moment of death itself and in the hours afterwards? What can I ask when my parents phone? What shouldn’t I say? These are the questions that ran through my head in the days after my Mum first told me my Nan was terminally ill.
I wanted to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible about what would be happening since I couldn’t be there myself. I didn’t want to be surprised and I wanted to be able to comfort my family – albeit from afar – as her illness progressed. This BBC Radio 4 podcast series was, admittedly, uncomfortable listening for me – and it may be too candid for some – but it certainly supplied all this information and more besides.
Listen to Death Itself
What’s Your Grief?: Introverts and Grief
Podcasts that I turned to again and again after my Nan died were those by www.whatsyourgrief.com. Run by two young female mental health workers with over a decade of experience – both personal and professional – in bereavement, I found it easy to warm to their colloquial style.
The top episode for me was entitled ‘Introverts and Grief’, which helped me make peace with the fact that my personality does affect the way I cope with loss, and that I shouldn’t spend extra time beating myself up for feeling too socially anxious to call my remaining Grandad or shy to attend a bereavement support group. The episode ‘Guilt and Regret in Grief’ came a close second!
Listen to What’s Your Grief?
This American Life: One Last Thing Before I Go
‘What power do words have in the face of death?’ is the overarching theme of this episode of award-winning podcast This American Life. Both of these stories resonated with me.
The first, about a defunct public telephone booth set up by a bereaved man in Japan that is used by tsunami survivors to speak to those they have lost, reassured me of how universally healing it can be to talk to those who have departed. It made me feel a little less shy about chatting with Nan at her graveside.
The second, about two estranged brothers finally opening up and reuniting in their late 80s, brought home to me how important it is to talk about the bad things in life – the mistakes, the grief, the shared negative memories and painful feelings – because doing so prompts others to offload too.
The first thing I did after I finished listening to it? I called my Grandad and told him how much I miss Nan, and the relief in his voice at being ‘given permission’ to do the same was palpable. He didn’t have to keep pretending he was fine. I realised it’s okay to admit you’re struggling and have since vowed to set an example to the rest of the family by grieving for Nan as honestly and openly as possible; it seems to help.
Listen to One Last Thing Before I Go
What has helped you?
There must be podcasts I’ve missed, or books, stories, radio shows, TV programmes or even songs out there that have resonated with others who have experienced a different kind of loss – say, that of a partner, child, parent or friend, rather than a grandparent.
I’d really love to hear any recommendations; please let me know of any that you found helpful, comforting or enlightening in the comments below. I’ll share them with our online community members (and my family).
And, finally, if you have been impacted by bereavement or terminal illness, don’t keep your grief to yourself. Reach out to others in our online forum.
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