“Dying Words”: The Things Your Grandparents Can Teach You, Pt.1

Every time an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down.

– Alex Haley

I may not always like their politics, but I have always enjoyed listening to old folks tell their stories. Maybe it’s my love of history. I consider all the years I had with my own grandparents – Edith (1918-2010), John (1921-2014), Jack (1933-2012), and Norma (1934-) – to have been a priceless gift, and benefitted enormously from my time with them. Many of the stories they told me about their own lives will serve as lifelong reference points. Many of the nuggets of wit and wisdom they shared will be lifelong sources of inspiration.

I feel sorry for folks who miss out on those deep connections and the unique perspective that comes from knowing and loving people raised in very different time periods from our own. With more knowledge available at our fingertips in the smartphone era than in the rest of human history combined, it is often said that we are nevertheless starved for wisdom. Profound disconnection from older generations has been one of the great tragic failings of modern developed societies. The young so often lose out on all their forebears have to teach them. The old so often live out their days in tragic isolation, typically having deeper relationships with their home-healthcare workers or nursing home staff than their own children and grandchildren.

One of the most tragic things about COVID-19 is that it has exacerbated and accelerated this process of disconnection between the elderly and the rest of society, while cutting short so many of their lives and often forcing the victims to face death alone. The Atlantic had a recent article about this called “The Tragic Loss of Coronavirus Patients’ Final Words.” Zeynep Tufekci explains the tragic inhumanity of the situation:

Of all the wrongdoings of this pandemic, the one that haunts me most is how people are left to die alone. Health-care workers have been heroic throughout all this, but they do not replace the loved ones whom the dying need to be with, and speak with, even if only one last time.

A hallmark of COVID-19 has been the speed with which some patients have crashed, going from feeling only a little sick to being unable to breathe, sometimes in the space of a few hours. Such a crash often necessitates intubation, a process that then renders one incapable of speaking. Many people on ventilators are also heavily sedated and unconscious… Thus, sometimes with little warning, all communication is lost, and more often than not, a patient is without family or loved ones when this happens.

Early in the pandemic, patients were left alone precisely because the crisis was so dire. Many hospitals outright banned visitors… Many COVID-19 patients were transported solo in ambulances, and family and friends were unable to join them at the hospital once they had arrived. Others were dropped off by loved ones who were then turned away. Patients sat in their rooms, waiting…

Sometimes, a nurse or doctor managed to connect the patient with their loved ones before the tube went in. But… in many cases there was simply no time for that last call, or anyone available to arrange it. As the disease progressed, families were left clustering around a phone as a hospital worker held up the device for a final goodbye on FaceTime. Often, the family could talk to their loved one, but not vice versa. That’s not enough. What the dying have to say must be heard.

You might not think something like that would matter so much – a patient’s final words. But imagine realizing that you were about to die. What could be more important in that moment than having your loved ones by your side – and being able to tell them how much you love them, how proud of them you are, perhaps confess something or apologize for something, or perhaps share some desperate gratitude or desire or advice for a loved one that you’ve held back all these years? There’s no holding back, no artifice, in a person’s last words.

Perhaps that is why “dying words” are viewed as having special significance across cultures. As Tufekci continues,

The paramount importance of dying words has long been recognized across cultures. “When a bird is about to die, his song is sad,” Master Tseng, a Confucian leader, says in the more than two-millennia-old Analects of Confucius. “When a man is about to die, his words are true.” In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates notes how swans sing most beautifully just as they are about to die. That concept of the swan song—one’s last, most beautiful expression—also comes up in Aesop’s fables and in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and was already a proverb by the third century b.c. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, a dying John of Gaunt, hoping the king will come to hear his last words, says:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony.

Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain

Last words, or “dying declarations” as they are sometimes called, have long been recognized in jurisprudence as out of the ordinary, with known cases going back as early as 1202. That’s why statements uttered by people aware of their impending death can potentially be accepted in court without being subject to “hearsay” restrictions, which ordinarily exclude from evidence assertions made by those not in court to testify in person. In the Middle Ages, it was presumed that people alert to their immediate death would not dare lie, knowing they were about to meet their maker.

I find this very interesting, the implication that humans will act differently – with more purity, honesty, and intention – when facing down death. Of course, people on death’s door can often be utterly incoherent, i.e., past the point of full sanity, whether due to dementia, dehydration, the effects of medication, etc. My grandmother on my mom’s side and grandfather on my dad’s side both suffered some end-of-life incoherence for different reasons. But setting those people aside, it’s an interesting theory of human behavior.

It reminds me of three things. First, it reminds me of the end of Flannery O’Connor’s bloody short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, when the escaped murderer (“The Misfit”) shoots the chatty grandmother and then says, “She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Second, it reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s novel Manalive (which I haven’t read) when the “holy fool” Mr. Smith declares, “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him. Only to bring him to life.” And finally, it reminds me of an excerpt I once read from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos where he engages in a kind of thought experiment about treating depression with the threat of actual death, beginning with the line, “The only cure for depression is suicide.” (You’ll have to read the chapter to get his full meaning.)

Anyway, I’m sure there is much more for me to investigate along that line of thinking. At some point I should probably pick up a copy of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973). But to get back to Tufekci, the takeaway here is that facing death is widely believed to give us an uncommon level of “clarity”:

The clarity that can come from those facing death is also integral to many modern traditions and philosophies, including the existentialist and psychotherapy schools of thought, which emphasize that death, meaning, loneliness, and freedom are core axes of our lives, and that making all these existential considerations explicit can be key to a good life. The Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl talks about how these “primordial facts” of existence, including our mortality, help us realize and appreciate what truly brings meaning to our lives. The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, who specializes in treating people with terminal illnesses, says that terminal cancer, as terrible as it is, gives patients clarity that they did not always have before: “What a pity I had to wait till now, till my body was riddled with cancer, to learn how to live,” a patient lamented to him.

This recognition of the importance of parting words only sharpens for me the sense of the loss we as a society have incurred during this pandemic – not just from the sheer loss of lives and jobs, but the loss of time spent with our loved ones, especially those who have died. The dying have so often lost the comforts of those they love and the chance to speak whatever desperate truths might have been on their hearts. And the rest of us who are so starved for wisdom have missed out on receiving those parting words and accumulated tenderness they so longed to share. We can I suppose be grateful for having cellphones in all of this, but it’s not the same. The whole thing, all of this loss, fills me with such sadness. Perhaps, if we wish to cast about for some silver lining, through the shared experience of so sharply feeling the absence of one another, we may yet learn some lessons from this dark time about how much we need each other, not least our elderly friends and relatives. Let’s hope.

[More thoughts on this topic, including lots of examples of wit and wisdom received from grandparents, will be in part 2.]

One thought on ““Dying Words”: The Things Your Grandparents Can Teach You, Pt.1

  1. Pingback: “Dying Words”: The Things Your Grandparents Can Teach You, Pt.2 – Grasping at Awes

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