Disclaimer: I wrote this post the day after I found out about the situation and have not read it back. I can’t bring myself to. I’m okay now (considering) and we are starting to plan the funeral so we’re getting there. I’ve been quiet but I’ll be back to my usual self over the next week or so.
A couple of months ago I found myself reading Hannah Gale’s blog (nothing uncommon, it’s a regular occurrence in my weekly goings on) and came across this post. Hannah shared her experience of grieving with someone with dementia, and after finding out that my maternal grandfather had passed away late Saturday night after suffering with the same illness for the past few years, I wanted to share my feelings about losing my grandparent to the disease.
My Grandad was born in 1925 in Poland. He had two brothers and a sister. I honestly don’t know the full ins and outs of the story (and boy, do I wish I had asked), but during WWII, he ended up on a work camp in Austria. Over the years he fought in the army in a variety of countries, before settling in the UK. He met my Grandma, a Leicester lass through and through, and 62 years ago last Sunday, they married. They had four children, two boys and two girls, with my mum being the baby of the family.
Growing up, I feel like I didn’t see my grandparents that much. I mean, I’m sure I did but I don’t remember seeing them every Saturday like a lot of my friends did. My mum worked 6 days a week and liked her day off to be exactly that, a day off. But as I got older, things changed. I guess we had more free time or something, because seeing them became a monthly thing. I vaguely remember my cousin saying she wanted to make the most of her time with our grandparents as they were the only ones she had left. I’m fortunate to say that up until the weekend, all four of my grandparents were alive and I understand how rare that is for someone in their 20s to say.
My fondest memories of my Grandad are of him passing us Polos as we were crammed in the back of his car. He’d peel home grown pears, the sweetest you would ever taste, and he’d share just one pear between me, my cousin and him. I remember my Grandad giving me a cucumber he grew in the garden and telling me not to eat all at once it in his broad Polish accent and I promptly devoured the whole thing on the car journey home – I didn’t feel too great after that as it hadn’t been washed. I haven’t eaten runner beans since my Grandad stopped driving to his allotment as my mum refuses to buy them when she only ate home grown growing up. He was a very special man, of whom I have very fond memories.
In 2011, I got a text from my cousin asking if I wanted to accompany her and my Grandad to Poland for a few days. Even then, we knew he wouldn’t be around forever and also thought we should meet our Polish relatives (because at 20 and 16, neither of us had) whilst our Grandad could enjoy it. I’m going to be honest, it was the strangest ‘holiday’ I’ve ever been on, but I’m so happy that I said yes. My Grandad had always been a little deaf in one ear, but there was nothing more pleasing than seeing him chatter away in Polish like he had nothing wrong with his hearing at all. He was happy and animated, and I’ll definitely remember that trip for more than the long car journeys and bizarre lengthy stays in car parks (don’t ask).
However, that trip was a little bittersweet for me as it was the first time I’d really thought about my Grandad passing. When I was staying with his brother, we visited his parents’ graves. They died a long time before I was born, but seeing their graves with his surname on the headstones turned my Grandad into a mortal for me. I shed some silent tears for the great-grandparents I would never meet, and I even shed some tears for the mortality of my own family.
Back to my Grandad’s life; despite always being unsteady on his feet (for at least the past ten years, although probably more), we didn’t suspect anything was really wrong with him. We’re talking about a guy who smoked like a chimney, drank whisky regularly and never suffered from anything more than a seasonal sniffle. But mentally he deteriorated quite quickly when the dementia really took hold.
He went into a care home for a bit, and we tried him being back with my Grandma for a little bit, but noone in the family was capable of caring for him. I am so thankful to anyone who can be a carer, but it is not for me. And it’s not for anyone in my family. Eventually he went into two main care facilities, with the second being the one where he has spent the past year or so.
In the last year, I could probably count on one hand the amount of times that he called me by my name, but that’s okay. I know that he did know me and that he had a great life before dementia took hold. Until Christmas, he would tell us about boat trips and bike rides that he definitely hadn’t been on, but it was wonderful for him to chat and for us to hold his hand whilst he retold the tales. In fact, until Christmas he could’ve kept going and going and going.
On the 16th December 2016, I finished work for the Christmas break. On the 16th December 2016, I was told my Grandad was being put on end of life care. We were told to expect the worst and that we should say our goodbyes. Christmas always seems to be the worst possible time to lose a loved one, as it’s such a family centred event. I must’ve visited my Grandad four or five times over the weeks following that event, with every goodbye feeling like the last, but it wasn’t. Whilst we had the most depressing Christmas with not a lot of alcohol involved in case we got ‘the phonecall’, my Grandad kept fighting. And before we knew it, he wasn’t on palliative care anymore. He was bed bound for the rest of his life (with the exception of a couple of trips down to the main lounge) but he didn’t pass, and we were sort of out of the woods.
Over the final 7 and a half months of his life, I saw him most weekends. He slept a lot, he didn’t eat a lot and he didn’t know who any of us were. But I still saw him and I know in my heart of hearts that that’s all I could do. Last Wednesday, I’d been in London and not long after I got home my mum got ‘that’ phone call at about 1am (I was asleep, go figure). She raced over to Leicester and he’d had a suspected mini heart attack. However, by 4/5am he was seemingly out of the woods and she returned home. I found out the Thursday evening and promised myself I would visit at the weekend.
On Saturday, me, my mum, my aunt, my cousin and my grandma all spent around an hour and a half with him. He looked poorly, like, really poorly. His breathing was shallow, and he was wheezing, and he just looked awful. When I left, I said ‘see you soon’, even though in my head I was fully anticipating a phone call that afternoon saying he’d gone. You know there are those people who seem to wait until their family have visited, and then just go? Almost like they’re at peace with everything. That’s what I was expecting.
The funny thing is, he did seem to hang around until all the big events had happened. He saw my aunt’s 60th, he made it through both my family’s and my uncle’s trips to Spain and it’s almost as if he waited for us all to be able to see him one last time. It’s just a real shame that his date of death is the day before my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, and two years to the day that we had our cat put down. That makes it very difficult.
It hurts, but the worst thing is that I’ve already grieved him twice and it still aches. I grieved him when the dementia really took hold, I grieved him on the 16th December 2016 and I’m grieving him again now. That’s what they don’t tell you about dementia: the amount of times you have to say goodbye to a person. But I’m happy to have known him enough to be able to grieve him.
I wish I could put an old photo of him in here, but they’re all in the attic. However, I’ve included some more recent photos of him so you can all see what a great man he was. If you want an eloquent read, take a look at Hannah’s post that I linked at the beginning. This is more of a post for me to remember the man I know as my grandfather. Thank you, Joe Gunia, for everything.
Joseph Gunia 5th June 1925 – 29th July 2017