How Grandparents Day and Dying Well Conversations Inspire Old and Young Generations Alike

06 Sep 2019 - Tracey Wallace

Welcome

National Grandparents Day was conceived by Marian McQuade, after helping to organize a community celebration for those over 80 in 1956.

HISTORY OF GRANDPARENTS DAY

There, it was clear to her that so many of the nursing home residents were so often left alone, forgotten by their families who were living lives outside the nursing home walls. She then decided to launch a campaign to dedicate a day to honoring all grandparents.

These days, Baby Boomers are becoming the largest generation of grandparents in the history of the United States –– a claim their generation has been able to make for every stage in their life. Older age is no different.

BABY BOOMERS AND THE LARGEST COHORT OF GRANDPARENTS - EVER

And while Baby Boomers’ children are waiting longer than ever to have children –– the U.S. birthrate hit its lowest in 32 years in 2019, and more American women are now having their first child in their 30s rather than their 20s –– Baby Boomers themselves are living longer. This has increased the amount of time in retirement, the rate of second and third marriages, and, of course, the ability for Baby Boomers to embrace being grandparents.

Of course, more and more elders are also ending up in palliative care as families move away from their nuclear unit and form new lives in cities further away.

Palliative care, nursing homes, and hospice have all seen major innovations and disruption over the last few years. Perhaps the most important disruption, however, has been a focus on talking about end-of-life wants and desires – for both senior citizens, as well as those years away from end-of-life needs.

DYING WELL CONVERSATIONS GO MAINSTREAM

Groups like Death Over Dinner, founded by Michael Hebb, or The Conversation Project, which encourages talking about end of life desires long before the end of life approaches, are working hard to change our understanding of death.

This is because most Americans say they do not want to die in hospital or hospice, but rather in the comfort of their own home. And yet, most do not see that wish fulfilled.

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A graphic design by Nathan Gray, a Palliative Care Doctor and Cartoonist living in North Carolina.

Having serious conversations about end of life desires with friends and family prior to end of life can make sure that death is comfortable, and in the location you want it to be.

This passage from the Introduction of the book A Beginner’s Guide to the End, explains it well:

“Only a small fraction of us, 10 to 20%, will die without warning. The rest of us will have time to get to know what’s going to end our lives. As discomfiting as that can be, it does afford us time to live with this knowledge, get used to it, and respond.

We do have some choice about how we orient ourselves toward the inevitable. Where we’ll die, maybe. Around whom. And, most important, how to spend time meanwhile. To make those choices manifest, you’ll need to be clear about your ‘goals of care,’ a phrase borrowed from the field of palliative care that’s becoming increasingly common.”

All of this is why for this Grandparent’s Day, we’re shining a light on the inspirational story and relationship between Michelle Wang and her Gramma Poun.

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Gramma Poun and Michelle.

Their relationship makes it clear why Grandparents Day is so important. After all, the stated goals of Grandparents Day are:

  1. To honor grandparents.
  2. To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children.
  3. To help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance older people can offer.

Each of these is done in Michelle and Gramma Poun’s story, which highlights the important contributions both Michelle and Gramma gave to one another. So, let’s start from the beginning –– interview style.

TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR GRANDMOTHER. WHAT WAS HER BACKGROUND, WHO WAS SHE AS A PERSON, WHAT DID SHE BELIEVE IN?

My grandmother was an incredible woman. She had eight children. And actually a set of twins too, but they passed away.

She was born in Laos on February 20, 1930. During the communist takeover in that country, she fled Laos with my grandfather and five of her children. They fled through the Mekong River where my grandfather suffered a stroke prior to them being able to escape.

Instead, they settled in a refugee camp in Thailand for several years before being sponsored to come over to the United States in 1980.

I was born in 1988.

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WOW, AND YOUR GRANDMOTHER WAS A BIG PART OF YOUR UPBRINGING, IS THAT RIGHT?

She was the woman who raised me.

My parents were absent for a lot of my life. They took the job opportunities they could to make ends meet for my brother and me. So, they left us in the care of my grandparents.

I was raised by my grandparents as a result basically from the time I was three or four, to now –– up to, I would say, her recent passing.

WHAT WAS THAT LIKE BEING RAISED BY HER?

We were always very, very close. She never punished me or anything. She never had harsh words for me.

She did have high hopes.

For instance, she’d say: “Oh, I’m waiting for you to get married so that I can have my tea.”

I’m half Chinese, half Lao (she was full Lao) and so she was like: “I’m waiting to sip my tea.” And I’m like, “I could be making tea right now…”

She held onto some of the old traditions –– women married young, had children, settled and were happy with a home. It’s different here, though, in this time and place.

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WERE THOSE DIFFERENCES DIFFICULT FOR HER?

Not necessarily difficult, I’d say. She saw me grow up and become such an independent person. After my grandfather passed in 2002, she started becoming the matriarch and putting her foot down, becoming sassy and just speaking her mind.

That was around when, while her goals and her wishes and her wants remained, she’d tell me: “Hey, you don’t need a man. If this person is not doing their job, you don’t need them.”

But she always did want me to get married. She’d say: “But, I’m still waiting for my tea ceremony.” And I was always like: “Oh, Gramma.”

IT SOUNDS LIKE SHE WAS VERY INSPIRED BY YOU.

I think it’s a very synergistic relationship. We both gained strength and perseverance through each other. She leaned on me as much as I leaned on her. She saw the hardships that I went through, and saw the failed relationships.

When she’d say that, I always thought: “Wow, that’s coming from somebody from the old country who got married at 19! That’s a bold statement to make for her!”

She ultimately just wanted me to be happy in the end. Whatever route I chose or whatever I did, she always wanted someone to look out for me.

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YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL WITH HER ASHES SO THAT SHE CAN SEE THAT WEDDING, IS THAT RIGHT?

Yep, that’s the reason why I chose to go and eternalize her in a diamond because she did want me to get married and that’s what this diamond will become. She will be my engagement ring and she will follow me through my adventures in life.

`<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/357846431?color=034ea2&byline=0&portrait=0" width="640" height="1136" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; fullscreen" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Grandma Poun's Eterneva Inauguration from Adelle Archer on Vimeo.

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Gramma Poun’s Eterneva Inauguration.

I’d also asked her before, when she was diagnosed with acute leukemia and she only had three weeks left. I asked her when she had declined treatment and she said she just wanted to pass away at home with home hospice care.

I was her at home hospice nurse. I took time off without pay for that. I was there, doing everything, even at the time of death. I gave her her death bath and clothed her.

Before all of that, though, I did ask her for her permission if I could have some of her ashes to have her made into a diamond. She’s Buddhist, but I’m not religious, so I didn’t know if there a stigma of some type.

THAT’S VERY THOUGHTFUL OF YOU.

My mom didn’t want me to ask at all. My mom’s said: “No, don’t even speak about it!”

So, I taught myself in Lao how to say diamond, ashes, and all of this, just to ask her. And my Gramma said: “That’s the only thing you have ever asked of me in your entire life. Of course you can have some.”

I got her blessing.

IF YOU DON’T MIND, I’D LOVE TO BACK UP A BIT AND LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TWO OF YOU. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR EARLIEST MEMORIES OF HER?

I just remember her changing my diapers. She definitely did that. And then, spoon-feeding us food and whatnot. It was almost like a mama bird kind of a thing, where we would have soup or porridge where she would actually stick it in her mouth before she would feed it to us so it’d be a cooler temperature.

And then, at the end of her life, me and my cousins make a joke out of this, but when she was passing away, I was the person that she literally wait until I got off work and came over. She wouldn’t let the nurses take care of her or anything. I was the hygienic person. And, forgive my crassness, but I’d tell my cousins: “I shit you not, Gramma waits for me to come over to actually do that and I have to clean it up!”

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IT SOUNDS LIKE IT ALL CAME FULL CIRCLE.

It really did come full circle. I can definitely say that yes, it did. And it was wonderful. My cousins did not believe me. And then they started coming to visit and realized I wasn’t just joking!

But, I was the one person that she was comfortable with and she knew I was strong enough to do it and capable. She knew my abilities more than I did. Between my mom and myself, we were both in the room, Gramma would say: “Not Jocelyn. Go away. I want Michelle to do it.” My mom, I don’t even think has changed a diaper in her entire life.

HOW MIGHT YOU DESCRIBE YOUR GRANDMOTHER NOW TO A STRANGER?

Profoundly unique, in a way that I cannot describe, to be honest. It’s unconditional love. It’s a loss that I feel now, and also something I don’t know if I’ll be able to find again. But I hope that it will happen. Maybe when I have my own kids.

For my lifelong friends, they knew how important my grandmother was. But, for the ones that I’ve just recently met, they didn’t realize or understand why my grandmother’s passing was so hard for me.

Yeah, I took it in such stride, but they didn’t realize it. And for me, I couldn’t summarize it. I just really couldn’t.

This is the woman who raised me and I’m losing my pillar of strength. I’m losing the person who always encouraged me, the person who stood up against whoever spoke ill of me. I’m losing all of that.

But, at the same time, she’s one of the people who taught me to stand up on my own two feet and, really be the strong independent woman that I am today.

That’s the only way I can describe it to people, but at the same time, they don’t understand the depth or the level of that unconditional love.

WERE THERE ANY PIECES OF ADVICE OR WISDOM SHE GAVE YOU THAT YOU’LL TAKE WITH YOU?

Every time I saw her, she’d always gently remind me that even though I may not know my own worth, I am more than worthy of anyone or anything. Not to ever let anyone tell me otherwise. Don’t let anybody bring me down.

Just remember that I am her granddaughter and that with her, with her wishes for me, and with her strength and words, I can accomplish anything I want to.

AND WHAT ABOUT ANY TRADITIONS SHE PASSED DOWN?

We cooked a lot together. She’s the one that actually taught me how to cook, so I know how to cook all the traditional Laotian meals.

And when she started getting older and not able to cook as much or at the same rate that she used to –– she fed like eight people and 15 grandkids –– then I’d carry on the tradition. She’d always requested me to do Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Chinese New Year. That’s something that I will be carrying on. I continue to cook for my family of 35.

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WHAT DID YOU ADMIRE MOST ABOUT HER?

Just her strength and her resilience. She exercised every day. She made it a point.

And if this woman can brave World War II, if she could brave a communist takeover, if she could drag her husband, who was suffering a stroke, and five children across the Mekong and then come live and assimilate in another country?

This woman is badass.

NO KIDDING! AND SHE DID ALL OF THAT BEFORE, WHAT, 30 YEARS OLD?

Yep! She’s such a badass. I want to be like her.

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