How Strong is your Will to Survive?
My Grandma died last month. She was one hundred and one, 2 months shy of her one hundred and second birthday.
Over the years, I watched her pass through the various stages of deterioration. Amazingly, she was still walking and completely independent up until the age of 96. At that point, she had a fall, lost her confidence and, from then on, relied on a walking frame.
Despite this setback, she fought to maintain her independence and remained in her home until she reached her 100th birthday. She then moved into a local care home.
While in the care home, she still battled away. I visited her 3 times a year (my mum would make the journey to Yorkshire monthly). Throughout this time, her spirits remained high. She had little to do, as she spent more and more time in her chair, but she was always happy to see us and her mind was focused on living. Even as her eyesight began to fail, and she could no longer watch TV or read, she was still, largely, positive.
Then, after a visit from her new born great grandson, she started to weaken. She reported feeling tired and a couple of weeks after that, lost the ability to swallow.
This was the beginning of the end. At that age, no intravenous fluids are administered and the human body typically lasts no more than three to four days without water.
She lasted five.
I was with her two days before she passed. Despite being laid out in bed, unable to see, eat or drink, she still fought on. I heard the continual cycle of shallow gasps, followed by about five minutes of regular breathing, and wondered what she was living for?
Why did she hold on?
My Grandma always had a strong survival instinct. She never talked about death. She didn’t even talk about getting old. She just wanted to live.
At times, I wondered why.
During her final year, her quality of life was negligible. In fact, it had been diminishing ever since she’d had the fall aged 96. She had very little to do (being immobile) and very little stimulation. Human contact was all she had. My mum visited regularly and so did a couple of local friends.
That being said, she still spent a large amount of time on her own, in a bedroom, with only the noise of the TV to entertain her.
‘What kind of life is this?’ I thought, when I visited her the time before last. ‘Why doesn’t she just give up and let go? I would in a similar situation.’
However, now, I’m not so sure. Being with my Grandma in her final few days filled me with a huge sense of admiration. She had nothing to live for yet kept on fighting.
The family theory was that she’d been living to meet her great grandson and, once she’d done this, she gave up. I disagreed. While she was undoubtedly looking forwards to meeting Arlo, and it certainly gave her something to live for, there just simply wasn’t any quit in her. Life had to be taken.
Of course, in the end, it was. Even the people with the strongest survival instincts will eventually have their light extinguished. However, this isn’t the point.
We need to focus on the lessons these fighters can teach us. Why do they cling to life so desperately?
Is this all we’ve got?
You may not like my answer and, secretly, I hope it’s wrong. Watching my Grandma cling to life so desperately, when she seemed to have nothing to live for, made me think this is all we’ve got!
No heaven or hell or afterlife or spiritual dimensions. When that mortal light goes out, that’s it. Game over. We cease to exist in any shape or form.
Perhaps, subconsciously, we know this. We know there’s nothing else and that’s why we place such a high value on survival, even when our lives are shitty.
Of course, you may point to suicide – the number one killer of men in England and Wales between the ages of 20 and 49 – and claim it shoots down my theory.
Maybe so. Then again, people who voluntarily kill themselves would almost certainly be categorised as mentally ill and, therefore, not acting in their right mind.
Whatever the case, it’s clear the desire to survive has a lot to do with not wanting to lose the gift of life.
I understand this. When you stop to think about it, life is magical.
You get to wake in the morning, see a brilliant sunrise and listen to the birds sing. As I write this, the sun is descending and there’s a majestic red hue to the blue sky. Sights like these are precious. Still, they only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the experiences life offers.
What about love? You can have an amazing spiritual and physical connection with another being which makes you feel alive in ways you never imagined possible.
What about creation? Whether it’s a child, a book, a product or a project, you get to create something that might have an inspiring impact on another person.
And what about the arts and sports? You get to listen to music which moves your soul, watch films that inspire and connect with a deeper part of your being and see paintings that transport you to another place and time. Then, you get to move your body in incredible ways, overcome challenges and feel the thrill of succeeding.
Furthermore, you get to explore. You get to discover the richness of life on earth, taking in all the spectacular scenes, smells and people.
Finally, what about being? Without any stimulus at all, you can still experience those quiet, still moments and feel connected to life.
When faced with oblivion, I could see why someone would want to cling to this with everything they’ve got.
My purpose in writing this is not to challenge your hopes or beliefs in an afterlife. It may well exist. Instead, my intention is to get you to appreciate the magic of being alive.
If this is all we’ve got, then you must make the most of it. Give more than ever, both of your talents and help when it’s needed. Dare to go for what you want. Fearlessly explore the avenues that could lead to greater love, freedom and expression. Appreciate each breath you take, each meal you eat and every sunset or full moon you see. Recognise it for the gift it is.
And, above all, don’t waste your time. Don’t spend your life doing things that make you unhappy. Don’t get distracted by mindless TV, trivia, social media or the internet. Don’t allow anxiety to take residence in your mind and prevent you from experiencing life to the fullest.
Live as much as you can. Get as much as you can out of life. Cling to it with every breath you have.
This is the lesson I took from witnessing my Grandma in her final few days. It reminded me of the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not go Gentle into that Good night’. I don’t know whether my Grandma was a fan, but, somehow, it seems relevant.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they,
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
My Mum read a eulogy at my Grandma’s funeral. Towards the end, she talked about the lessons she’d learned from her. With this being a personal development website, I thought it appropriate to end with them,
“Stay active, have an enquiring mind, take on new hobbies, never think of yourself as old and never leave the house without make up!!”
IN LOVING MEMORY OF JOYCE THOMPSON, 22ND NOVEMBER 1916 – 12TH SEPTEMBER 2018
(Picture n1: Taken circa 2002, me and my Grandma.)
(Picture n2: Taken in Northallerton, North Yorkshire on the morning of my Grandma’s funeral. In the background are the Hambleton Hills, her birthplace.)