A Tribute to My Grandpa
Fifteen years ago this month, my Grandpa Carl died peacefully on Christmas Eve under the care of Unity Hospice. I was still in nursing school at the time, but already knew I wanted to be a hospice nurse once I graduated. I have now been a hospice nurse for twelve years, with the last 5 being with Unity. Though losing my grandpa during the holidays was incredibly painful and difficult, it has certainly reinforced how important the support of my family is to me this time of year.
My grandpa was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. I can’t help but smile, even now, as I reflect on his life. Grandpa Carl was the type of person who would short sheet the beds and hide plastic snakes in the sleeping spaces of his adult children when they vacationed to Florida together. He was the type of person who wore underwear on his head for a laugh and a photo opportunity. My grandpa was the type of person who thanked God out loud each and every time he had a meal that did not contain his least favorite food, tuna fish.
My grandpa was one of the most caring people I’ve ever known. Throughout most of my elementary school days, I observed my grandpa tending to my grandma Donna in their home as dementia gradually robbed her of body and mind. Well into his eighties, my grandpa volunteered his time and refused to accept a paycheck for delivering floral arrangements for my uncle’s partner’s business. He did it simply because he enjoyed bringing joy to others and helping those around him. My grandpa was a father to eight children and a grandfather to fifteen grandchildren and it was clear he loved his family. My cousin Katie once said it best, “if I can be half as kind and generous in life as Grandpa Carl, I’ll know I’m doing alright.”
Photo of Grandpa Carl, courtesy of Unity Nurse Keri.
Ten years before my grandpa passed, he suffered a nearly fatal cardiac arrest at the grocery store. We were all so fortunate that two bystanders performed CPR on him right away and he made a full recovery. Although our family was extremely lucky to have had an additional decade with Grandpa Carl, it was still very hard to eventually watch his health decline throughout the years. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he co-existed with for several years. Eventually, his cancer spread to his bones and his treatment options became much more limited. He began losing physical function and started having more pain, so he signed onto Unity Hospice for more support.
At first, life for Grandpa Carl remained relatively the same with the addition of hospice support. He was able to spend time with family and friends and remain active. His hospice team came to him in his home. He no longer had to sit in waiting rooms or doctor’s offices and he could focus on different priorities (though I’m sure he missed having a regular excuse to eat at Aurora Hospital’s cafeteria).
Over time, Grandpa Carl’s decline accelerated. My family took turns staying with him around the clock. His world became much smaller, and his living room became his bedroom. He turned from his usual McDonald’s breakfast and black coffee to teeny tiny ice chips flavored with splashes of juice or sports drink. The pain from his bone metastases increased and made movement much more difficult. He went from independently driving floral deliveries to needing help with transfers and toileting in a relatively short period of time. The hospice team started visiting more often, teaching our family what to do and what to expect, providing support and compassion along the way. They helped us with the ever-changing landscape. They helped treat his pain both physically and emotionally.
Our family has always had a tradition of getting together on Christmas Eve. It was the afternoon of our big gathering, and I was getting ready to head over to my aunt and uncle’s house when my mom called to let me know my grandpa had just died. We knew it was coming, yet I was still surprised at how quick it had happened. Apparently, he had wanted to get into his own bed to take a nap. One of my aunts helped him get into his bedroom, and he never woke up. He certainly suffered and struggled throughout his decline, but this was about as peaceful as one could go.
Photo of Grandpa Carl, courtesy of Unity Nurse Keri.
I headed over to my grandpa’s house along with several of my extended family. A nurse from Unity came to his house to pronounce his death and guide our family through the next steps. I don’t remember the nurse’s name; she could very well be one of my present-day co-workers at Unity for all I know. I do remember she wore a cherry red peacoat and that her blond hair was curled. I remember thinking that she looked ready to attend church or a family gathering of her own and I realized what a gift and sacrifice it was that she was there with our family, helping us through our loss. With so many of our family present, she didn’t steal our thunder or try to take over. She was quietly present and let us continue to be us. We cried. But we also laughed and joked, as I’m sure grandpa would have appreciated. The funeral home eventually arrived, and she departed, probably onto her next visit with another patient and family.
There was certainly no good time to lose my grandpa, but I like to think he purposely chose his time to leave us. As a hospice nurse, I have seen this over and over since his death. Some people truly seem to hold on for everyone to arrive and some people seem to hold on until everyone leaves. I think my grandpa knew someone would need to stay behind to be with him and did not want anyone to miss our family gathering. I also think he felt comforted knowing that we would all still get together after he left us and that we would have each other for support. It may not be the best holiday memory, but we were together, which probably would not have been the case had he died on any other day.
As a nurse, I have worked shifts on numerous holidays over the years. While I certainly would love to be with my own family on these special days, I know that there are patients and families that need our help. I been on the other side, receiving the compassion and sacrifice of the hospice team when my family needed it. Being generous and giving back is one of the best ways I can honor and remember my Grandpa Carl. Our family continues to get together every Christmas Eve (other than last year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic). We still miss Grandpa Carl dearly and he is certainly on our minds as we celebrate and make new memories, but we also strive to make him proud by showing each other each other kindness and love and passing on his legacy, which is what the holidays should be truly about.
This blog post was shared by Keri S., a Registered Nurse at Unity Hospice.
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