Life Slips Out Then Slips Back In

I wrote the following after witnessing the almost-death of my grandmother. It was a situation that aroused so many different emotions at once, and although I wrestled with the decisions made, my grandmother did live a few more years after this incident.


“Nurse, something isn’t right. I think she stopped breathing.” My voice didn’t sound like my own as I said these scary words. It was distant and strangely calm, which didn’t match the panic that was quickly taking over inside.

“Ok, I’ll be right there,” she answered, also rather calm. I turned and walked quickly back to my grandmother’s room, my heart in my throat, remembering the paperwork we had signed making DNR official.

Moments earlier, the nurse had given my grandmother a dose of oxycodone to ease the tremendous amount of pain she was in, while we waited for her regular pain meds to be delivered from the hospital. My grandmother is allergic to a large list of pain medicines, including morphine, but her pain was so intense after being moved into hospice that my mother and I decided we couldn’t wait for the delivery. Unfortunately, our desire to ease her suffering clouded our judgment and we didn’t even think whether oxycodone would send her into anaphylactic shock.

After the shot, my mom squeezed my grandmother’s hand while she groaned and writhed in pain. Her eyes were closed and she rocked her head from side to side, her mouth twisted in agony. I stood at the foot of the bed, silent and helpless, praying for the shot to work soon. I had never seen my grandmother show pain before. When it comes to suffering, she is very stoic, rarely showing any discomfort, so each groan of pain pulled at my heartstrings. My grandfather stood next to the bed, stroking her hair. At one point, she turned her head towards him, opened her eyes and said “Get me out of here!”

“Why?” he asked, eyes wide. “You’ll be ok here. This is a nice place.” He continued stroking her hair. I felt like throwing up.

Slowly, my grandma stopped groaning and drifted off to sleep. We all looked at each other with a sigh of relief. “Let’s give her time to rest. She’s had a long day,” my mom said. “Let’s come back in the morning when she feels better.” She stood up and grabbed her coat.

I nodded but kept watching my grandma. She appeared to be snoring but I noticed that the snores were getting farther and farther apart. “Is she ok?” I asked. My mom turned and looked at her. My grandmother’s face turned an ashy gray and her lips drained of all color.

“Mom? Mom, are you ok?” My mom took my grandma’s hand and began to rub it vigorously. My grandma took a breath, a sharp, snorting breath, and stopped. My mom rubbed harder. My grandfather walked over to the bed and said “I think I can still see her heart beating.” An eternity seemed to pass as I stood, frozen in confusion and shock that I may see my grandmother die in front of me.

She took another short breath and stopped again. Then the smell hit us. My grandmother’s bowels had released, and my mom and I both looked at each other. “I need to get someone,” I said.
“I think you better,” she said as she started slapping my grandma’s wrist. “Come on Mom, take a breath,” she commanded. I turned and, in what felt like slow-motion, made my way to the nurse’s station.

“Zatha? Zatha, can you hear me?” The nurse inspected my grandmother while another pulled a large syringe out of a bag. “We’ll give her a shot that should bind with the opiates in her system. But that’s all we can do,” the nurse said. “This may be it.” The other nurse nodded in agreement and stuck the needle in my grandma’s arm. My grandfather left the room. My mother continued to rub my grandma’s hand and talk to her while I stood against the wall, watching in fear.

The second nurse turned to me and said, “A lot of people don’t live long after they break their hip. This may be what is happening.” I didn’t respond. I didn’t even look at her. My mind raced as I kept my eyes on my grandmother’s gray mask of a face. She already looked like a corpse.

She couldn’t die this way, I thought, gasping for breath and shitting her pants. She had been in hospice only a few hours, it wasn’t time yet. She was supposed to die from a perforated bowel, not an allergic reaction. This kind of death could be prevented. I felt tears burning but not falling and fear started to turn to anger. It wasn’t fair! How could she die like this? No dignity, no grace and with nurses who didn’t seem concerned. But worst of all, how could she die now, with pain and agony as her last memory of life? No, fuck that. Whatever force it is that decides when it’s our time to go couldn’t do that to her. It had already taken my cousin in a fiery car crash, how could it take my grandma like this. She was supposed to die peacefully, drifting off to sleep with her family all around her. This was how I imagined it and that is how I wanted it to be. I clenched my fists as if ready to duke it out with death.

My grandma took a large snorting breath and a pale, pinkish color suddenly painted her face again. She breathed again, and this time it was clear and life affirming. Then came another and then another. Her lips made little puffing noises with each exhale and she appeared to now be in a deep sleep. “Oh, that’s much better,” my mom said, her voice full of relief.

“Well it must have been the medicine then,” said the nurse. “She should be ok now. We’ll get her cleaned up and let her sleep.”

Even though it all occurred within a matter of minutes, I felt as though hours had passed before me. I looked around me as though just waking from a dream and noticed my grandfather was still gone. I walked out of the room and saw him sitting on the couch, staring at the floor. “She’s ok now,” I said, touching his shoulder. He didn’t look up.

“Oh, good…That’s good, mmm-hmm.” I sat next to him and let the realization that she really was alive sink in. My anger was gone and now guilt crept in. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten the nurse. Maybe it would have been better to let her go. What if tomorrow meant more pain? More suffering? Would she want that? I suddenly felt very selfish. I wanted my grandma to live so badly that I had neglected to consider her feelings and her quality of life. Death can be a blessing, though we often forget that while we, as the ones left behind, think only of our own grief and pain. I feared seeing her the next day. What if the nurses told her what happened? What if she turned to me, eyes full of hurt, her wrinkled hands clutching the pillow and said, “Why didn’t you let me escape all of this?”

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Andrea Aebersold

Andrea Aebersold

I am an English professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities, which allows me to make a living as a book nerd. When I'm not reading, I can be found cooking, cuddling my dog, or drinking wine in Walla Walla.

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  • Suzy Garza Higley

    I have some personal turmoil about a situation similar. It was my father. I will always wonder if I had made other decisions if he would of lasted a little longer with us. It happened all too soon. But in that moment i wanted so much to give him peace…no decision ever sits well with us. Its not the kind of decision one knows how to make. You just do what your heart says at the time.