Skip to content

A Good Death

January 15, 2010

My grandfather, Herb Levy Williams, died yesterday morning, just four days shy of his 95th birthday.

It was a good death.

Herb—though cloudy with the early stages of dementia—made the clear-headed decision that he was done living. And despite his flawless heart, his former-athlete’s body, he willed himself to die.

My cousin Janie visited with Herb on Monday, one of his last lucid days. She asked if he wanted some acupuncture (my family is a traveling dispensary of alternative medicine) and Herb replied “No! That’ll just make me stronger.” Hospice was called in Monday, and by Thursday morning, Grandpa Herb’s heart reached its own finish line.

Herb died peacefully and with great dignity, his wife of 70 years—70 years!—by his side, holding his hand as his body grew still, losing warmth. There was no life support, no monitors. Just a man and his wife and a final breath.


The last time we saw Grandpa Herb, he was propped up in his nursing home bed with just his lower teeth set into his jaw, the upper row just as likely to be soaking in some fizzy water as tucked absentmindedly into his underwear drawer.

It had been a year since we last visited Herb and just as one year in a young child’s life binds together volumes of new skills, conversely, a year in a very old person’s life is an unraveling, a list of what has been lost forever.

“Is that Col?” Herb shouted at his great-grandson. “How old are you now? How many fingers do you have? Are you in charge of everything?”

Col unfurled four fingers shyly, counting out his age and Herb grabbed and shook Col’s soft hand in a moment of wordless male bonding tinged with cheerful dementia.

And despite the twinned smells of urine and Clorox, the stooped people with haunted minds ghosting through the halls, Col smiled at his great-grandfather, disarmed.  Herb grinned back. And though neither of them would ever be able to articulate the value of that brief encounter, I felt my own body relax in gratitude. This is why we came.


By the time Col was born in 2005, Grandpa Herb was already a thin, shadowy knock off of his former self. That he was walking five blocks to Piedmont Avenue to purchase an occasional something or other at 90 years old, was impressive. Three years earlier he took me and Dan on a “favorite quick hike.” Dan and I followed behind as my 87 year old grandfather scrambled over fallen logs, zigged and zagged uphill, dodged poison oak and gave us a tutorial on the names and uses of the native plants. It didn’t so much matter if he matched the wild iris or shady madrones with their proper bios (which he probably did); Herb was in his element, showing us what he loved.

On that same hike he told us of how he courted Joyce. He laughed, telling us how they met on the Long Island Railroad, both returning from an evening in Manhattan. Joyce’s date had been a friend of Herb’s and asked Herb to see Joyce home. This was 1937 and without the instant connection of cell phones and e-mail, their romance is steeped in a classic hue that will never be available again. In the sepia tinged photos from that time, they look like movie stars, tall elegant, and carefree, posing on the beaches of Trinidad, where Herb was stationed during WW2.


I had been preparing Col and Rose, reminding them daily since hospice arrived that Grandpa Herb was dying. To them Herb was now dying forever, a static state, rather than a passing season, the very last season.

“Everyone in Berkeley is very sad about Grandpa Herb.” I told the kids one night at dinner.

“Let’s make Grandpa Herb a present!” Col replied. “Let’s make him a clay bunny with sequins.”

“Honey, he’s dying, he doesn’t need anything more.” 

“Oh. Okay. But what about a clay horse, and we could paint it pretty colors and send it to him!”

“He really doesn’t need anything anymore sweetie.”

It must be virtually unfathomable to a boy who last night slept with a fishing pole, stuffed ram, and mini gardening book that one might no longer need anything.

 “Col, can you think of something to give Grandpa Herb that isn’t a thing?” Dan tried.

 Col thought for awhile, stumped, and then said tentatively, “a clock?”


Col and Rose were visibly shocked when I told them yesterday morning that Herb had died.

Rose: “Grandpa Herb’s dying?”

Me: “No honey, he’s dead.”

Col: “Why isn’t he dying anymore?”

Me: “Because he died; he’s gone.”

Col: “But where are his bones?”

Me: “Still in his bed.”

Col: “But what about his skin?”

Me: “His body is still in bed, it just doesn’t work anymore. His heart stopped beating.”

Rose: “Did my heart stop beating?”

Later that morning—the kids quietly munching peanut butter and honey sandwiches while our car stopped for the hissing steam train, thin winter sun warming my face—the tears came. Tears for all that passes with a life – the stories, promises, successes, know-how, regrets; the history of millions of small moments lost. That father who tossed shrieking daughters into the air in their Long Island backyard. The husband that twirled his wife on a dance floor, an entire exchange contained within their eyes. 

And then gratitude followed the sadness; gratitude for life, for Herb’s lucky, charmed life, for his good death. Gratitude for my own children who are just at the start of their own lives. And the hope that my children might someday hold the impossibly soft hands of their great-grandchildren, and smile. 

December, 2009. Herb pushing Joyce who is pushing his walker, so that when they get to wherever they're going, he'll have what he needs to get around. Teamwork until the end.

Col and Grandpa Herb, 2006

Col and Grandpa Herb, 2006

Grandma Joyce with Rose, 2008

Col and Grandpa Herb, 2008

33 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2010 2:55 pm

    “Happy grieving,” someone said who knew –
    Happy the dawn of memory and the sunrise.
    (May Sarton)

  2. January 15, 2010 3:16 pm

    ohhh, rachel, what bittersweetness. the pictures with the children and their grandparents priceless keepsakes. my prayers for comfort for grandma. what a lovely guardian angel for your kids…

  3. Ami permalink
    January 15, 2010 3:57 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. Your words meant so much to me as I contemplated the absence of my own grandparents… I am forever touched by the notion of the brevity of life. You captured this idea very well as you described it. I love how children, even in the atmosphere of death, still don’t fully integrate or comprehend the idea. I could perfectly imagine your grandfather’s connection with Col as he asked if he was in charge of everything! It is lovely to hear about a “good” death. Thank you.

    • January 15, 2010 6:39 pm

      It *is* comforting that the kids don’t fully understand death. Rosie said the other day “Will I become a brother when I’m dying?” Oy. Thanks to the kids, we can discuss it, get sad, and then transition flawlessly to the next thing.

  4. Peggy permalink
    January 15, 2010 4:04 pm

    Oh Rachel- I’m so sorry. I know it was a “good death”, as you said…but I am still shedding tears for you and your family. What a great piece about his life – and his death – captured so eloquently by such a great writer. Grandparents are so special, and I’m so happy that you have such great memories of yours – some of us are not so lucky. Hold tightly to the wonderful thoughts and memories you have. I’m so happy that your children were able to meet him – how special.
    Take care – Peggy

  5. January 15, 2010 4:46 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss. I’m glad that he had a good death. I lost my grandfather in a similar way, and the memory of how peacefully he passed was later a lot of comfort to me.

  6. Ally permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:02 pm

    Rachel – Thank you for sharing the essence of your experience of the passing of your grandfather. I think of your grandfather and the full life he led and pray for solace for your grandmother. I also reflect on my own grandparents and their passing, and the lore of old photographs and stories and memories of my childhood playing in their yard. Love to you and your family. – Ally

    • January 15, 2010 6:42 pm

      Ally, thank you. This will be a huge “new normal” for my grandmother after almost 71 years of marriage; though because of the dementia, I imagine there is some relief.

      I loved thinking of your grandmother everytime Rosie wore the onesies she tatted on.

  7. KathySmith permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:06 pm

    Rachel, You have done it again, wonderful and touching writing. My parents were born and raised in England and I never knew my Grandparents, it is a loss I have felt my entire life. Ed and I visited England recently and through time with cousins I have met only three times I was given a real sense of who my Grandparents were and how I treasure it. Be sure your children have meaningful relationships with their Grandparents, it fulfills a deep need they do not even know they have. You are wonderful and I am so glad to know you and share these glimpses of yor life.

    • January 15, 2010 6:50 pm

      Kathy, your grandchildren (five and counting?) are so lucky to have you and Ed in their lives!

  8. janie permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:15 pm

    Photos are being searched for. I love your writing. He was so proud of you, everything about you and the life you chose. He loved you so much.

  9. January 15, 2010 5:23 pm

    That was a beautiful post about what sounds like a beautiful man! i’m sorry for your loss.

  10. Sarah Chase permalink
    January 15, 2010 5:47 pm

    This is such an eloquent piece, and really touched me. I just lost my amazing grandmother last September, and so much of what you wrote resonates with me. I am very sorry for your loss – even when we have the “comfort” of knowing our loved ones’ have lived an incredibly full life, and even with a good death, the heart aches. My thoughts are with you.

    • January 15, 2010 6:43 pm

      Thank you Sarah, it feels like more than the loss of a life, but the loss of history, irreplaceable family history. I am sorry for your losses too.

  11. Steph permalink
    January 15, 2010 6:13 pm

    So sorry, Rachel!! What a good, long life he had. I LOVED the photo of him pushing his wife and she pushing his walker. PRICELESS. My remaining grandparents are now 90 and 93; I’ll be facing this same situation sooner rather than later. I am so glad that he had a good death and that you can find peace in that. Lots of love!!


    PS- We haven’t taught “death” to our daughter yet- any suggestions?

  12. January 15, 2010 6:46 pm

    My only suggestion for talking about death (especially a non-violent death) with kids is complete honesty; it is amazing how much they can absorb without trauma.

  13. brigid permalink
    January 15, 2010 7:10 pm

    wow my own 4 grandparents are in their late 80’s and I find this story comforting on so many levels. as they age I wonder what the world will be without them, most specifically my world. I savor my yearly tips back east to sit at their kitchen table and talk. conceptualizing life without their ever present seniority in my family is hard. I love your son’s thought pattern about this, I can remember Kathryn wanting to draw my dead great aunt a picture to cheer her up and trying to tell her even though she was there (physically) she was now gone.
    hugs to you dear granddaughter.

  14. Ike permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:00 pm

    Very moving and evocative writing and pictures. I already miss Herb and your post brought that home. A quick side note-I hit tennis balls with Herb when he was 89! I am so glad you all got to see him last month.
    Ike (aka Baba)

  15. Ellen permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:33 pm

    You have spoken for all of us…maybe for everyone who has ever lost a beloved grandparent.

  16. Regina permalink
    January 15, 2010 8:55 pm

    Sniff. His face was so beautiful. Lots of love in these pictures and words.

  17. January 15, 2010 9:41 pm

    “A Good Death” well told. Peace and many good vibes to you and yours.

  18. meredith pollick permalink
    January 16, 2010 1:54 am

    My thoughts are with you and your family. I remember your grandparents, how energetic and smart they were~ and how much they loved you. Thank you for your beautiful words.

  19. January 16, 2010 2:12 pm

    My eyes are brimming. What a tribute. What photos. So much heart shining out of those eyes.

    We should all go so well.

    So much love and sympathy to your family.

    And thank you. xoxoxo

  20. January 16, 2010 4:13 pm

    stumbled upon you in my reader and love this post! Beautiful moments captured in your words! I am sorry for your loss but a life like Herbs can only bring tears of joy i’m sure. My three year old is an old soul and wonders alot about death even though she hasn’t experienced it yet. I think she first figured it out when we told her about great grandparents who had already died. My husbands father died before she was born and she will often say she misses Grandpa Jack. thank you for sharing Herb and his life with us. he looks like a man with a very bright light that will always go on shining!

  21. January 16, 2010 4:42 pm

    What a lovely tribute. Death can be so confusing and scary. I love what you wrote.

  22. January 17, 2010 2:04 pm

    those moments are never lost.
    my grandmother passed away last month and i posted about her in much the same way you did. it’s powerful… to bring and honor death in life.
    peace with you and your family.

  23. January 18, 2010 2:06 am

    Sorry for your loss Rachel. How blessed you were to have such a wonderful Grandfather. What a wonderful Grandpa Herb tribute!
    peace & love,

  24. January 25, 2010 1:17 am

    Oh Rachel, I’m so sorry, not just for yours and your family’s loss, but for the world’s. Herb sounds like a wonderful man and your post is an eloquent eulogy which honors his life and his memory. I’m sorry I didn’t read this sooner, but I’m sending thoughts of strength, love and peace to you and yours.

  25. January 25, 2010 6:47 am

    Oh shoot, I sure didn’t even know Grandpa Herb and I’m all teary! What a sweet looking man and your stories about him paint such a great picture. I was getting weepy reading along but the picture of him pushing Grandma and she pushing his walker put me right over the edge! Imagine a marriage that long… amazing. And beautifully told.


  1. 6512 and growing
  2. Goodbye Grandma « 6512 and growing

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I love hearing from you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s