Death without regret

Ashley Brown spent a month with her beloved, dying grandmother before she passed. In this essay, she reflects on their conversations about death and the unending gift of love.

Ashley and Elizabeth. Taken in May 2022 at Givens Highland Farms, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Provided by author.

As a Christian, I’ve always believed in life after death. But when it came to my personal life, it seemed too good to be true. My heart couldn’t handle being let down, and so I reserved life after death for everyone else. I liked to think that I would disintegrate into the Appalachian soil of my home and cease to fully exist.

When it became clear that my grandmother Elizabeth was dying, I spent the month of May with her at Givens Highland Farms in Black Mountain, North Carolina. We spent our time together saying a confluence of holy goodbyes and reminisced memories. We had a month together to process her upcoming death. I napped in the twin bed, holding her and listening to the hum of her oxygen machine and the air conditioner.

Her death broke me into twenty thousand shards of memories. Everywhere I look, I see reminders of her. My grandmother’s last gift to me was the lesson of an intentional conversation about death.

She and I orchestrated the “perfect” goodbye. It was the goodbye we needed, outside of traditional norms. We read Shakespeare; we discussed Esther and Mordecai and what bravery looks like. We sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” I snuck her lemon loaves from Starbucks and we did our hair and nails together. In between recalling old memories and bouts of dementia, we would find moments in which we could meet in the middle. We both took full advantage of those quick moments of lucidity and grace, knowing they were numbered.

We were intergenerational allies, navigating difficult conversations that only she and I could have. I’d like to think that my seminary training had prepared me to be able to listen to her without shutting down.

One of the most powerful conversations we had was about the transmutation of our relationship after she died. How often are we given an opportunity for deep dialogue with our loved ones when time is running out? She seemed to appreciate that I wanted to talk about her death. It wasn’t a topic many of her visitors wanted to cover.

We talked about what our family would look like without her here, if I would be ok without her, if her death would be the end of our relationship, or if there was a possibility of continuing our relationship, even after her death.

We landed on a soft, in-between Christian-y place, rooted in heavenly doctrine. A spot of trinitarian mystery, of the presence of Christ and God and the Holy Spirit. Because love comes from God, her love for me could never die, even after her body gave way.

When she did die three months after I left, I didn’t feel her. Life continued, and it felt like a betrayal of her legacy to exist in a new life without her. If a part of my soul had died, then how could I stand in line at the grocery store or do laundry or read or cook dinner? And we had dialogued; we had prepared! If any two people were ready for death, it was me and Elizabeth.

With time, I am beginning to feel her again, and it comes through in surprising corners of my life. It may be someone using a familiar phrase of hers while on the phone walking by, or in dreams in which she’ll sit by me as I eat lunch. Sometimes it’s the simple beauty of a rainbow or of a stranger wearing the exact same shirt as her infamous polka-dotted shirt she wore everywhere. I realize now that I will never be without her. Her legacy is imprinted upon me from her Presbyterian theology to our roots in Appalachia. And the alchemy of a life well lived is a powerful thing.