Saying Goodbye

Packing up a loved one's earthly belongings can teach us what's really valuable.

by Brenda Sprayue

When my husband, Brian, and I were first married, we lived around the corner from his grandparents. These were no ordinary grandparents. As a boy, Brian ran to them every time his mother, who suffered chronic ailments caused by anorexia, went back into the hospital, or when his stepfather, who never really accepted him, became hostile and played cruel psychological games with him.

One day when ten-year-old Brian again showed up at Grandma and Grandpa’s doorstep, hungry and in tears, they insisted he move in with them. There was no argument from his parents. So from that day on, Brian’s grandparents, in their seventies, were his parents.

Arthritis and back spasms didn’t stop them from sitting on the hard bleachers for every one of Brian’s basketball and baseball games. Grandpa lovingly taught Brian to fish and garden and even introduced him to Christ. And although money was tight, Grandma and Grandpa sent Brian to college, where we met. When Brian brought me home to meet them, they immediately accepted me as part of the family. I grew closer to them than to my own grandparents.

Helping hands

The first few years of our marriage, Grandma lived for the weekly family feasts she hosted. But as time went by, her dinners became less extravagant, then less frequent. It wasn’t long before health concerns, such as Grandpa’s emphysema, kept them from driving and even from attending their beloved church. Brian and I ran errands for them, did their yard work, and brought them meals.

Although Brian and I now had two young children to raise, nothing gave us more joy than helping Grandma and Grandpa. But as our fourth wedding anniversary approached, a new job opportunity two hours away surfaced for Brian. We were hesitant to leave them, but Grandma was insistent. “You have your own family now,” she told us, “and you need to do what’s best for them. We would never want to hold you back.”

“Spread your wings, kid!” Grandpa encouraged his grandson.

After we moved, other family members stepped in to lend them a hand. At first Grandma called me nearly every day. Many weekends we packed our bags and went home to visit.

Through the years, we left their house each time with more than we came with: a box of photos or books, some table linens or cookware. When Grandma gave us the big iron kettle in which she made her beloved creamy broccoli soup, Brian had a fit. It hurt him too much to accept that his grandparents wouldn’t always be there for him.

Unexpected death

Eventually, Grandpa’s breathing took a turn for the worse. He went into the hospital, and we planned a visit. But something came up to delay our trip. Phone calls assured us Grandpa was doing well. When he was transferred to a nursing home two weeks later, we were told it was just “an insurance thing,” that he’d be home soon.

One weekend soon after, I packed our bags, determined nothing would stop us from making the two-hour trip back home. When Brian, our two children, and I arrived, we were shocked to learn Grandpa had died only hours before. Brian and I suddenly felt very young and useless. Not quite 30 years old, we knew we couldn’t begin to understand Grandma’s loss after 60 years of marriage.

Following the funeral and a quiet dinner, Grandma and I said goodbye to friends and family as Brian brought the car around. It was then she hooked one arm through mine and feebly said, “I know Brian has to go back to work, but I’d like you and the kids to stay with me. A week would be nice.”

I nodded, but I was worried. How could I possibly be so close to her grief when this was my first taste of it? Could I hold myself together for Grandma’s sake?

Bittersweet duty

I was willing to try – and my chance to help came sooner than expected. The next day, a strange mixture of pain and industriousness came over Grandma. “Something needs to be done about that room,” she said shakily. “Would you clean it out for me? I just can’t go in there.”

I knew exactly which room she meant: Grandpa’s bedroom, with its now-silent oxygen therapy machine and his empty railed bed. It didn’t surprise me that Grandma couldn’t face this one last intimate task.

Grandma handed me a roll of garbage bags. “We’ll leave them in the garage for Goodwill,” she bravely instructed. “Everything goes.”

I stood alone in Grandpa’s room, the door shut so Grandma wouldn’t have to watch me stuff his leftovers into big black bags. Just standing in his space, so soon after standing at his casket, hurt as nothing had before.

I opened Grandpa’s closet door. Three thin cardigans hung on Grandma’s yarn-wrapped hangers . . . twelve perfectly pressed short-sleeved dress shirts . . . the suit he wore when I married his grandson. I lingered over his immaculately organized underwear and sock drawer.

I alternately grieved and marveled over this man who loved my husband so well. Though he’d suffered, he’d never complained. He rarely took to his bed during the day. The few times he did, he liked to have the door open to the noises of life: the kids squealing over the toys, the Indiana University game on television. I’d glimpse his thin form barely lifting the blankets and feel an incredible rush of love.

I neatly stacked his clothes, taking much longer than I had to. When I discovered Grandpa’s blue slippers under the edge of his bed, it knocked the wind out of me. It felt disrespectful to place them in a garbage bag, and even more so when I had to carry the bags past Grandma to the garage.

Beginning and ending

When the last item was gone, I sat on the bed, my heart bruised. If I feel this way, I can’t imagine how Grandma feels, I thought. I thanked God for the privilege of having something, anything, to do to help her. But now that the job was complete, I couldn’t seem to leave the room.

Then I knew why. It was too easy to picture Grandpa puttering around that room or suffering in that bed. With a quick prayer that my decision wouldn’t hurt Grandma, I removed the oxygen therapy machine and bedrail, moved the nightstand and lamp, then turned the bed 90 degrees. With the bed against the adjoining wall, the empty bureaus had to be moved, too. After a little dusting and vacuuming, I told Grandma I was done.

I held my breath as I awaited her reaction. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “Well, I can’t even picture him there. I never would’ve thought of that. What a good idea!”

We stood there for a long time, arm-in-arm, just looking, hearts filled with all kinds of feelings – among them a hint of hope: Although life is full of endings, it’s also full of beginnings.

When Jesus faced His final days on earth, He concerned Himself with preparing His friends for the painful separation. He wanted them to adjust to their new lives without His physical presence. For their sake, and for ours now, Jesus spoke these comforting words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1, 2, NIV).

Whenever I get wrapped up in how sad and short this life is, I challenge myself to imagine an eternity better than anything I’ve ever imagined. I picture my loved ones there someday, happier than they ever were on earth. I even believe that one day God will joyfully call to Grandpa, “Spread your wings, kid!”

As Grandma and I left Grandpa’s empty room that day, we smiled at the sounds we heard. My kids were taking turns goofily rolling off a beanbag chair in the living room. It took Grandma and me a moment to realize we were giggling along with them. Even on a day like that.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Grandma said to me, “you could rearrange the living room?”

“It would be an honor, Grandma,” I said. And it was.