by Jen Bagnall
Death isn’t pretty, and it isn’t easy. But in the midst of my grandmother’s death, God gave me one of the greatest gifts ever: the comfort of eternal life in Christ.
When you think of the perfect grandmother, that was my Grandma: pleasantly plump, always smiling, always ready with a hug and a yummy treat, always brimming with more love than even we greedy young things could absorb.
And we were greedy. I don’t know how many grandchildren Grandma had, mostly because Grandma’s four sons married and had families that just disintegrated. Divorce, remarriage, more divorce, children out of wedlock . . . it was hard to keep up with who was with whom. But somehow Grandma kept it all straight, and for children whose home lives were falling apart, she and Grandpa were the rocks to which their grandchildren clung. For nearly 40 years, they provided the unconditional love in great abundance, love that many of us didn’t always find at home.
Late Saturday night, I received the call I hoped would never come: the call from a little-known relative, letting me know that someone I dearly cared for was nearing the end of life on earth. Grandma had suffered a massive stroke and wasn’t expected to live much longer.
The woman who had rubbed my tummy when I felt sick, who helped me out of the apple tree when I climbed too high, who bandaged my scrapes and stings and kissed me goodnight now needed me to bring her that same comfort. I wanted to be able to give back to her just a little bit of all that she’d done for me.
Fortunately, I have an incredible husband who didn’t question me leaving him in the middle of Advent (one of the most hectic seasons for a pastor) with two busy kids and a messy house. He simply gave me a kiss and said, “Go.” And so I went.
Late Monday afternoon, I arrived in western Iowa at the bedside of my broken grandmother. In life, Grandma had been an Avon representative and always looked nice. Now that pretty softness was gone. In its place was a tight mask of death: skin pulled taut across her face, eyes sunken, her toothless mouth hanging open as she gasped for each breath. It was difficult to see.
At her bedside were my half-sister, Tena, and my cousin, Heidi. My sister, Camille, and I joined them, and into the wee hours of the morning, we held Grandma’s hands, stroked her sparse hair, kissed the thin, feverish skin on her forehead and cheeks and shared our favorite memories. Could Grandma hear us? If so, we couldn’t tell. She remained as unresponsive as she had been since the stroke, unable to squeeze our hands or murmur a word.
As the hours passed, our attention shifted to what was most important: sharing the Gospel with this dear woman who was soon to meet her Creator. It had always been hard to tell exactly what Grandma believed about God. She went to church every now and again, and I knew that she believed in Him.
But now, with the time of her meeting Him so near, was she ready? Again, we couldn’t know. She couldn’t communicate with us at all. And so, having been told that hearing is the last sense to go as a person dies, we decided to do what we could to share the Good News with Grandma.
As the rest of the people of Denison climbed into their beds for a good night’s rest, we opened the Bible to Luke and the story of Jesus’ birth. When we got to the part about the prophetess Anna who had waited her whole life to see Christ, I whispered into Grandma’s ear that now, like Anna, she was going to get to see her Savior. If she was worried about whether she would be able to go to heaven, I told her that because she was a baptized child of God, those worries could be thrown away. Jesus had taken all her sins upon Himself, and she no longer had to worry about them. He was waiting there to take her with Him into heaven, and someday, I was going to join her there too.
Again, there was no response other than strained, regular breaths.
The next morning, things quickly changed. Grandma’s breathing became even more labored, and her eyes stared, unseeing. More family gathered, and we each had our time for a final goodbye and our private words of love.
Then, as the other family members left the room, Tena, two of her daughters, Camille and I were left alone with Grandma. I thought of Grandma lying there in the silence; wouldn’t that be lonely? What else could we do for her? So we pulled out a hymnal and started to sing Christmas hymns.
We started with “Away in a Manger,” which ends with this stanza:
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there.
As we finished the last few lines, Grandma began to stir. Thinking she was hurting or restless, I rubbed her hands as we continued. Then, as we sang the glorias of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and prayed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” Grandma’s eyes, previously frozen and unseeing, suddenly came alive. The spark of life was in them again, and she focused intently on something only she could see. A single tear seeped out of her eye as she joined her voice, guttural and unformed though the words were, with ours. With her last strength, she raised her hands and swung them with the music. Her toothless mouth spread wide in the most joyful of smiles. Her face shone.
Something happened in Room 218 of Denison Community Hospital at 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, December 7, 2010. The curtains to heaven were opened to her eyes, the Lord drew her to Himself in eternal rest, and five of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were blessed enough to be in the room when it occurred.
This Advent, if you wonder or worry, take comfort. The Lord knows your needs. He is with you, and He will be to the very end. He will never let you go.
About the author: Jen Bagnall works for Lutheran Heritage Foundation.