Long, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
By Joseph Nowinski
The increasing ability of modern medicine to arrest or slow terminal illness means that never before has death been such an extended process for so many. But as a culture, we’re only just beginning to face the deep ambivalence that reality creates for both patient and family.
I was 16 when my maternal grandfather died. It was 5:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve when the phone rang, awakening my whole family. Through my closed bedroom door, I heard my father walk down the hall, answer the phone in a muffled voice and then call out to my mother. My stomach knotted: I knew no one called with good news at this hour.
As I shuffled into the kitchen, I saw my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a handkerchief held to her eyes. My father cast me a stony look. “Your grandfather died in his sleep last night,” he said.
My uncle Bruno, who’d spent the night in my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment—a snowstorm had prevented him from commuting back to Long Island—had been awoken by my grandmother, who’d been jarred awake by the shocking chill emanating from her husband’s body. Bruno then called our house.
Grandpa, who was 52, died because his lungs filled with fluid while he slept. I knew that he’d worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines from age 14 through his mid-20s to help support his family. I also knew from times I’d slept at my grandparents’ apartment that each morning he spent what seemed like an eternity coughing and spitting behind the closed bathroom door. That worried me, but I never thought it would kill him.
Grief: The Way It Was
In her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, first published in 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified a process that she believed individuals pass through when confronted with death. It begins with denial of the loss, moves through anger, bargaining, and depression, and ends in acceptance.
My initial reaction to my grandfather’s death certainly was denial. I’d heard what my father told me, I’d seen my mother’s tears, but on some level, it didn’t register. The last time I’d seen my grandfather, on Thanksgiving, I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. Not a big talker, he tended to stay on the edges of other people’s conversations. But you could tell he was listening, because every once in a while, he’d chip in with a comment that was right on target. That was exactly how he was that day. Also, as was his custom, he dispensed a silver dollar to each of my brothers and me as we departed.
If the kind of grief that Kübler-Ross wrote about represents what we could call “traditional” grief, it stands in stark contrast to what could now be called “contemporary”grief.
I insisted on accompanying my father from our Long Island home to Brooklyn later that morning, ostensibly to help Bruno and my grandmother in whatever way we could. But looking back, I realize I also needed to see Grandpa with my own two eyes. It wasn’t until I stood in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom and saw him, lying on his side motionless under a blue blanket, his face ghostly pale, that my loss started to become real.
I remember my anger. I moved through the entire wake and funeral in a quiet, clenched fury. My grandfather had been snatched away from me, and I was outraged by the theft. During the calling hours at the funeral home, a friend of my father’s approached me with hand extended, smiling. I returned the gesture, but I also distinctly remember that I didn’t—couldn’t—smile back at him.