Last November, pre-Covid-19, my grandmother passed away. She just barely missed her 105th birthday. She was living in a small senior centre settled on a beautiful rural landscape which housed approximately ten residents. She had her own room and other than the automated bed that she required, it was filled with all of her own furniture and belongings.
Despite quality care and many comforts, it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t her family home and for her that was palpable. She laughed, and loved, and enjoyed many moments with the staff and her peers – and she relished the moments when her children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren, and friends walked through the doors. For her, kinship wasn’t replaceable, and she was sometimes prone to bouts of longing and loneliness even in great company.
I was on the road within an hour of getting the call. The time was coming. The family scrambled to get on the phones with each other – across provinces, across countries. Those who could began making emergency travel plans. I lived a one hour drive away. I arrived alone.
“She had an ‘off’ day yesterday,” the caretaker said. “She hasn’t woken up today. She probably won’t.”
For 48 hours I talked to my grandmother. I held her hand. I sang her songs. She never opened her eyes, but she would squirm and shift and react to her surroundings. I used a sponge to periodically wet her mouth. One caretaker would arrive every few hours to apply Vaseline with a Q-Tip to her lips. The caretaker would smile and say, “here’s some lipstick for you, sweetie”. My grandmother would pucker her lips and we would laugh because it was just ‘so’ her.
It was an act I will never forget.
I spent two days by my grandmother’s side, periodically sleeping in the recliner next to her bed. On the second night I woke suddenly to a noise. I jumped to her bedside and grabbed her hand. I told her I loved her and kissed her forehead. It was just her and me. And that was it. She was gone.
The “lipstick” caretaker was on night duty. She cried. When the morning staff arrived hours later, they cried too.
This is how I learned what the word “care” truly means. It is about feeding, cleaning and clothing. It is also about knowing how much my grandmother loved her lipstick, and that she would have wanted to look her best even in her final moments – especially in her final moments. It is about grieving loss even when loss is part of your job. Call it care, compassion, kindness – call it love. It is all of these things.
We are all grieving – caretakers too.
Small acts of care like these help us to connect with our loved ones when they are at their most vulnerable. These acts comfort us as much they comfort our loved ones. In this era of Covid-19, so many of these experiences have been taken from us.
In Canada, the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly through seniors centres. Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital recently announced an outbreak in their facilities. As we continue to lose our most vulnerable community members, they and we are stripped of many of these acts of care – holding a loved one’s hand or whispering one final word. They grieve without the closure of knowing their loved ones were not alone. Families must grieve from a distance. Caretakers must too. No hugs. No gatherings. No lipstick.
The most surprising emotion I had throughout the experience of my grandmother’s passing was the immense feeling of pride that washed over me. I never wondered if I would be okay holding my grandmother’s hand while she passed. I wondered if she would be okay holding her granddaughter’s hand and letting go. She did. And I am so proud of her for that.
Whoever you are. Whatever your loss. Whomever you’re grieving. Whether you are the caretaker, the patient, family member or friend – for whatever it’s worth – I am proud of you too.