Can you grieve over an inevitable death?

My great-aunt died tonight. She was old, and had had Alzheimer’s for many years (it runs in our family, unfortunately). My memories of her true self are from early childhood. She was a neurologist and lived in Philadelphia with her many dogs and large collection of books. Her tiny row house had a solar water heater on its roof, an energy-saving system she had installed decades before it was in cool to be an environmentalist. She would come over every so often for a visit and would bring my sister and I curious toys. She was kind yet strong-willed, owing to her upbringing in Oklahoma. She kept a weapon in her house out of sheer habit; to not do so out on the prairie would be unthinkable. I don’t think she ever really mentally left the prairie of her childhood.

Years later, when my dad and I stayed at her place while attending a comics convention in Philadelphia, she was already suffering pretty badly from Alzheimer’s disease. She had repeatedly gone out driving and gotten lost long after she shouldn’t have been driving at all. Having never been married, she was a very independent woman, and didn’t like anyone telling her what she should do. So her brother, who was now living with her and taking care of, disabled her car by disconnecting a lead to the engine. She was eventually moved into a nursing home because her brother, just as old as she was, was in failing health as well and couldn’t manage her. Some Alzheimer’s patients get very complacent while others get combative; she was the latter type. Though given who she was, that wasn’t any surprise.

A year or two later her brother died, and my dad and I visited her at the nursing home to tell her in person. It was severely depressing. It was as if she simply wasn’t there. The body remained, but the woman she had been was gone. She couldn’t talk; she could only mumble at nearly inaudible levels. I listened closely and intently with all the focus of someone trying to faithfully record a dying person’s last words, yet I could not make any sense of the quiet noises. She had already said her last words before that point. I’m not even sure if anything in her mind registered when we told her her brother was dead. But now I feel like I am focusing on the symptoms of the disease too much. She was a kind, reasonable, intelligent person for her whole life before she became afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and I wouldn’t want anyone to form any impressions of who she was just going on the unavoidable final symptoms of her ailment.

So now that I hear the final news that her body has gone off to join her mind, how do I grieve? I feel nothing. I’ve already felt everything I was going to feel in the years prior. This final part was inevitable and inexorable. How does someone in this situation bring themselves to feel sad? I already spent my time feeling sad when I first heard of her diagnosis, and then I experienced much more sorrow as I personally saw her progress through the stages of the disease. I hadn’t even seen her in the last three years, so I have no idea how bad it was at the very end, but I’m confident that the person she really was had already slowly evaporated into the ether, leaving just the flesh behind.

It is a twisted fate for a neurologist to meet, to be felled by one of the very diseases they studied and treated in other patients. In her will, written before she ever knew of her diagnosis, she indicated her desire to donate her body to science. It is only fitting then that she may have some small role in curing that which ailed her, so that others do not have to experience the slow insidious dying that renders family members unable to grieve upon the moment that final death arrives.

Rest In Peace, Muriel McGlamery

15 Responses to “Can you grieve over an inevitable death?”

  1. Ripberger Says:

    My deepest condolences.

  2. Phil Says:

    I know exactly how you feel… My mom wasted away due to cancer, and the inevitability of her death and the sight of her just kept alive, but not really ‘here’ (except for a few final lucid moments when she wanted to be taken off the drugs) resulted in a feeling of… nothing when she finally succumbed. There was even a small sense of relief that she was finally no longer suffering.

    Anyway, it means a lot to me to know that I’m not the only one that knows what this feels like… I never really know how to answer when people ask me how I felt when she actually died, because I think telling the truth will make me out to seem like some kind of monster, even though I really loved her a lot. Just wanted to let you know, and say thanks for this.

  3. Karen Says:

    Hi Ben –

    I googled Muriel McGlamery tonight, hoping to find an obituary, and instead was delighted to find your blog. I liked what you said very much.

    I don’t know if you remember me from family reunions, but I remember you (the advantage of age.) My dad was Roger, Aunt Muriel’s brother, who died in 1964, and my sisters are Connie & Kathie. That makes me a cousin to your dad.

    I, too, am not feeling much sorrow that Aunt Muriel’s body is gone, since the aunt I knew was gone many years ago. I was in Philadelphia last summer and visited her in the nursing home and, while I think she knew someone was there just for her, it was very sad as she was not walking or talking.

    Aunt Muriel was a role model for me. She became a doctor when it was odd for a woman to be in medical school. She didn’t marry or have children, and was probably the first woman I knew who made that “ok” for me. She was athletic and tough yet funny and sweet. When I was a little kid I cried all the way to a doctor’s visit, so Aunt Muriel wouldn’t let my mother tell me that she was a doctor for many years. She was thrifty beyond belief, always had little yippy dogs that would try to bite me or pee on my stuff, and yet, I loved her visits. She had a knack of giving her full attention, full eye contact, with a ready smile, that made me feel very special. She and my dad, Roger, were very close, and since he died when I was one, I always looked to her for clues about what my dad was like.

    Thanks for your blog. It was so nice to read someone else’s thoughts about her.

  4. kevyn kennedy Says:

    hi ben,

    i am connie, karen’s sister. karen e-mailed your blog about aunt muriel. i am so glad that you got to know her as you did. truly, she was amazing. she was very close to your dad and i know muriel was an important part of your family. thank you for remembering her so eloquently.

    connie

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    Phil: Thanks a lot for letting me know I’m not the only one. I almost didn’t post this because I did fear it would paint me as a monster, or at least not sufficiently sympathetic. I was most worried that my family would end up reading it, but it turns out they also agree with the sentiment. Which brings me to …

    Family: Thank you for your kind words. I feel like I didn’t know Muriel as well as I should have. Thankfully, my dad’s working on the obituary along with some of the other people in the family. When that’s finished I’ll post it here ASAP, because so far, this site is the only Google search result for “Muriel McGlamery” and she deserves more recognition than that (though if you search for “Muriel E. McGlamery, you will find some of the neurology books she wrote and her name on the membership lists of various medical fellowships). I never quite realized how significant it was that she was a well-respected female doctor in a time when the profession was very male-dominated. I guess I never thought too much of it because I didn’t know much beyond how things were in the modern age.

  6. Kathie McGlamery Says:

    Ben:

    I am Karen and Kevyn’s sister. I really like what you said. I think you expressed so well what so many of us feel. I don’t know where time has gone. I still think you are a fifth grader. I would really like to get to know you better. Thanks.

  7. Rebecca Says:

    Hello,

    I am Rebecca, Paul’s wife. I entered into the McGlamery family too late to have known Muriel but I know I would have thoroughly enjoyed her company from all the wonderful stories I have heard. I loved reading your blog and the comments from the family. I am truly sorry I will not be able to go to the memorial. I wish I could have gone to visit with the family and meet the family members that I did not get to meet at the reunion but with the two children and this being my first weekend back to work after my maternity leave it was impossible for me to break away. Luckily, Paul will be joining Marshal and Marilyn to pay his respects to Muriel. I will make sure he is armed with photos of the newest member of the McGlamery family, Jacob Thomas. Thank you again for your blog, I was able to share it with Marshal and he also enjoyed reading it along with the comments made by family. Take care and I hope to meet you on another occasion.

  8. Paul Says:

    Hello family and friends,

    This is Paul, Marshal’s son. Aunt Muriel was an incredible woman. Strong of spirit, kind and compassionate, humorous and intelligent; she was one of a kind. I have read the other comments regarding the lack of sadness at her body’s passing. I agree with the sentiment that part of the reason for this numbness is that we had grieved our loss a few years back. The Muriel we all knew and loved left us when the disease eradicated her mind.

    I have a blog myself where I post poetry and fiction that I write. Tuesday morning I wrote and posted the following:

    Is that you singing outside my window this morning?
    I’m numb from the news, searching for closure.
    I’m staring at an old picture.
    You’re sitting on a beach with a dog in your lap.
    I’m trying to remember how you were before
    the disease obliterated your essence.
    I’m trying to remember your eccentric sense of humor
    (in that way you were just like my father).
    I remember how you’d drive all night when you came to visit;
    and if you got too tired, you’d sleep by the side of the road
    in your VW, because the motels wouldn’t let you in with your dogs.
    I remember how you’d send us the most unique Christmas gifts,
    unusual trinkets bought in Morocco or China or Chile.
    I remember how my father told us stories about
    how jealous he was when his twin sister was picked
    before him when they were choosing up sides for neighborhood games.
    I remember you were the star of your high school basketball team.
    I remember seeing pictures in your yearbook;
    your bright red hair was a stark contrast to the blue and white uniform.
    (incidentally, my son has red hair – he looks a lot like you and Dad)
    I remember coming to see you in Philadelphia five years ago.
    You didn’t remember who I was,
    but you could recall little details from your childhood.
    When I talked to my father last night,
    he sounded relieved,
    as if he’d said good-bye to you a long time ago.
    He also sounded lonely.
    He misses you, Aunt Muriel.
    So do I.
    Is that you singing outside my window this morning?

  9. Steve McGlamery Says:

    Ben,

    Steve here, Marshal’s younger son. Thanks for the beautiful blog entry (bet you didn’t know this was destined to become the family’s cyber-gathering place on this occasion!)
    To my other cousins,
    Good to hear from you and to share in your thoughts and memories.
    To my brother,
    Look what you did, you’ve gone and made me cry ( < ;

    My thoughts and memories of Muriel:

    Tough as nails, sweet as honey
    Sharp as a whip, humble as a pie (or whatever…)
    Freely dispensing expert advice, every family needs a medical expert (particularly in these days of skyrocketing expenses!)
    Loved the outdoors (fishing, traveling, hiking, etc.)
    Loved fellow eccentric characters and the common person
    Was a trailblazer

    I recall one time she called Dad while I was there visiting. I got on the phone and asked the usual “How’re you doing?” “Not so good. I’m forgetting things, losing my train of thought, in the early stages of Alzheimers” I tried to play it off as just the normal effects of aging, but she was having none of it. It occured to me later, that as a neurologist, she was dead-sure of her self-diagnosis. How she dealt with that knowlege at that point, I can’t imagine. Of course, this self-knowledge did NOT mean that she recognized how far she had progressed years later, not that she would ever willingly give up her independent life. Uncle Bob and Dad (and Aunt Pat and Mom) showed uncommon devotion, at great personal sacrifice, for several difficult years unitl getting her at last into a nursing home. David, too, has gone above and beyond as a loving nephew.

    Did I say she was determined, stubborn, Scotch-Irish in every way? I loved her deeply. She was Dad’s “wombmate,” then his “boosom buddy.” (Ha!) He says she always made “Who’s Who” and Dad made “What’s This?” She never had children of her own, but she left a wonderful legacy in this world, and a void in our family, in our hearts. Sorry I won’t make it for the service. Our prayers (me, Kim, Ellie and Anna) are with you all. Rest in peace, Muriel. You are now freed from the ravages this terrible disease brought on your brilliant mind and loving personality. For this we can all give thanks.

  10. Dave for Connie Flood Says:

    Words that friend Connie Flood provided that she would have spoken at Muriel’s memorial service on Saturday last if we had done that. I took them instead and said I would post them here.
    ” Muriel
    I see her standing, bending in the midst of her somewhat chaotic garden, littered with cartons of mail-order plants of all species from all continents of the world. There she tilled from morning to night, alone or with friends, oblivious to the existence of any greater pleasure in life than this. Generously, she packed up seedlings for me to take back home and try such as the locust sapling that now towers over my two-story home.

    When Muriel wasn’t in the garden, she was preparing some delicious food which she invited friends over to partake of with her. Her house was always pet-friendly, and over a hot meal, she regaled her friends with silly anecdotes and some bawdy jokes, too. But most of what I loved about Muriel was her down-home heart, one that wouldn’t let her abuse any of god’s creatures – human or animal. Rather, she was quick to lend a hand. May you rest in peace Muriel and be at home in your new garden.”

  11. Passionate writing is excellent writing | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] instance, look at the post I wrote the recent death of my great-aunt Muriel. It was an obituary of sorts, covering salient points of her life, explaining why the […]

  12. Death in the digital age? | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

    […] great-aunt died over three months ago, yet a week hasn’t gone by yet where we haven’t gotten some piece of mail addressed to […]

  13. Louise Robinson Says:

    I remember ‘Little Red’ from OKlahoma A&M in the 1950’s as a very competitive athlete especially in basketball and field hockey. We all knew she would be the best in whatever she attempted. We never kept in touch after college but I knew that she enjoyed a successful medical career. I was heartened and saddened by reading the family blogs. I can still see you, Little Red, as a fun loving, talented, phys ed major so long ago.

  14. Karen Scates Rhyne Says:

    I love your article on Muriel. I was looking for any history on this family when I was on google. Although I didn’t know her or her siblings I knew Walter McGlamery and Edna as I grew up in Quinlan and Mooreland. I actually graduated with Connie who has commented on this blog in 1971. My mom was Mary A. Gardner Scates one of John Andrew’s daughters. John A. was George’s brother and George was Muriel’s grandfather. So that makes mom and Muriel 2nd cousins. I have books on the Gardner’s as I’ve been researching for a long time. Have Walter and Bernice’s obits and stone but none of the children; so I was searching for obits. If you have any of them could you please email to me. John’s youngest son Bob is the only one left in this family. My mom, Mary, passed in Apr. 2007 and my Aunt Gladys passed in 2010-just attended her memorial in May of this yr.
    Articles like this help younger cousins who didn’t know them “get to know them”. Thanks so much for sharing-glad I found your site. If you need info please feel free to e-mail me. Thoughts and prayers for your family as you never stop missing them.

  15. James H. Cook, MD Says:

    My condolences to you. Dr. McGlamery was one of my teachers in my residency. I always admired her deep knowledge and sense of history; she told me once of being at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in the 1960s when levodopa was first introduced as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and the miraculous effect that it had on patients. I was always struck by her humor and compassion for patients, and the degree of self-knowledge that she had; she retired rather than endanger patients when she became aware of the insidious loss of memory which was the harbinger of her final illness. She had steel in her spine and love in her heart; that’s a great combination in my book.

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