This month, my husband, Justin Heckert, brings a story about death to these pages unlike anything I’ve ever read (and if you believe I’m biased, please read the story and see for yourself). The piece started with an idea: What might Wishard Hospital’s No One Dies Alone program mean to a person without family in her last days? The remarkable tale Justin witnessed shook him and those who experienced it to their cores. His story reminds me that death, though certain, is anything but predictable. And how we react to mortality can be just as unforeseeable.
Last year, I lost both of my grandfathers within six months of one another. Leroy was 92, a World War II vet who fell asleep that last time in his nursing home with a piece of shrapnel still lodged in the nape of his neck. Billy was 78, his Air Force–formed frame dwindled to an echo by cancer. They were not young, and their deaths were not unexpected. Still, my pain surprised me. Perhaps having them so long allowed me to delude myself that they would always be around.
The last time I saw Billy in the hospital, he was frail but as stubborn as ever. “I’m ready to die,” he said. I believed him. Billy didn’t bluff. But I still felt helpless. We’ll get you anything you want, we told him. “A cake doughnut,” he said. From Krispy Kreme. He took only a couple of nibbles, but that was enough. We held hands around his hospital bed in a crude circle and told him how much we loved him.
Billy died three days later, surrounded by my mother, my grandmother, and his sister. He was not alone. My other grandfather, Leroy, passed away in the middle of the night, the one window of the day in which my grandmother didn’t hold vigil by his side, as though he knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it happening on her watch. But he was not alone. Read Deborah Paul’s column, and you’ll see that her friend wasn’t, either. They all died knowing they were cared about.
Not everyone is so lucky, as Justin’s story shows. And the holidays can be especially hard. For every person for whom this is a time of happiness and family, another might be missing someone or feeling exhausted by troubles no carol can cure. But I have a suggestion. Look at our “Give Guide” section in this month’s issue. Listed are more than two dozen ways to show someone you care, that you see them, and that they are not alone.
Amanda Heckert is the editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly.
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue.