Jane Foster: Valkyrie – Glimpsing Transcendence in Death

The centerpiece of Jason Aaron’s epic seven year run writing Thor: God of Thunder/The Mighty Thor/Thor was Jane Foster lifting Mjölnir when the Odinson found himself unworthy to do so.  She became Thor, the Goddess of Thunder, and the stories that followed were the best Thor comics I’ve ever read.  It may be the best executed single story arc I’ve ever ready in any comic ever.  When the Odinson eventually reclaimed his title as the God of Thunder, Jane returned her focus to her civilian life, medical career, and – most importantly – fighting the cancer raging inside her.  However, her superhero career was far from over and the stories Jane Foster now finds herself in (written first by Jason Aaron and Al Ewing and now by Jason Aaron and Torunn Grønbekk) dance along the mysterious, wonderous, frightening, sacred threshold that is the dividing line between life and death.

When the Dark Elf Maliketh’s War of the Realms invaded Earth, Jane – mortal and powerless but with her cancer now in remission – once more stood alongside gods and heroes to fight his evil army.  Maliketh’s forces were ultimately vanquished, but not without great sacrifice.  Among those fallen in battle were all the Valkyrie.  In Norse mythology (and similarly in the Marvel Universe) the Valkyrie are a race of warrior women who decide who lives and who dies in battle.  The Valkyrie then had the sacred duty of transporting the souls of those who died to the realm they’d reside in for their afterlife.  At the end of the War of the Realms, Jane Foster was given the responsibility and the gift of being the last Valkyrie.

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Jane bonds with Undrjarn at the end of the War of the Realms. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As Valkyrie, Jane has the usual sorts of cool superpowers.  There is a physical transformation when she becomes Valkyrie and she has superhuman strength, speed, and durability.  Also, at the end of the War of the Realms, the Mjölnir from the “Ultimate Universe” melted and bonded to Jane, becoming Undrjarn the All-Weapon.  A golden vambrace (armor for the forearm) when at rest, Undrjarn turns itself into anything she needs, from swords and maces and bolas to wings which allow her to fly.  Jane also has a Pegasus named “Mr. Horse” living in her apartment who talks with a Yorkshire accent (which is even more fantastic than you’re imagining (trust me)).  As Valkyrie, she fights your usual supervillain baddies too – like Bullseye, Kaecilius, the Grim Reaper, and Tyr Odinson.

But in becoming Valkyrie, Jane Foster is more than a new Asgardian superhero.  Her duty extends so far beyond the normal arena where superheroes tread.  As the last remaining Valkyrie, Jane Foster exists on this ethereal dividing line between life and death.  It is her job to ferry souls – hero and villain, mortal and god – from this life to the next.  Her Valkyrie-Vision doesn’t just reveal things to her which are hidden from normal eyes and allow her to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead.  It also lets her see how close death is to anyone at any given moment.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Take a moment to think of that.  Think of the honor, the responsibility, the unbelievable intimacy that comes with knowing exactly when someone will die.  When Jane looks with her Valkyrie-Vision, she sees death’s distance from everyone her gaze falls upon.  Superheroes traditionally deal with protecting the city or the world or the universe or even – in extreme cases – the multiverse.  Battling supervillains for the good of all – warding off death – is the classic superhero shtick.  But fighting villains is only a secondary task for Valkyrie and she isn’t there to ward off death, no matter how much she may wish she were at times.  Her real calling is to stand beside the souls of the living as the nature of their existence is transformed and they cross into the great unknown that is death.

Valkyrie is the companion of death, the companion of the dying.  Death is universal.  It comes for us all without exception. As Jacques Derrida explains in his postmodern theological text The Gift of Death:

Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place….No one can die for me if “for me” means instead of me, in my place….I can give my whole life for another, I can offer my death to the other, but in doing this I will only be replacing or saving something particular in a particular situation…I know on absolute grounds and in an absolute certain manner that I will never deliver the other from his death, from the death that affects his whole being.[1]

So, for example, I can take a bullet for someone I love; I can die for them.  But that person will still die.  I can never save them from death forever.  And as Valkyrie, Jane Foster stands beside those making this universal transition.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I’ve thought of this a lot lately as Grandma’s death has been immanent for the last few weeks.  She had a week in the hospital and then, last week, she was released to hospice care.  We brought Grandma home, to her sunroom, and the family’s been hanging out, in rotating shifts (but often mostly together), to care for her as she’s always cared for us.  It’s been a week since Grandma’s been fully conscious and I doubt she will regain full consciousness again.  However, despite all this, her vital signs remain strong.  It could be days or weeks or months.  We’ve no idea.  Knowing death is near – the waiting – is emotionally exhausting.  I feel most days sap twice the energy the previous night’s sleep restored.  These are heavy emotions.  Yet despite the exhaustion and the uncertainty, these are grace-filled days, too.  I find grace in being with Grandma as she nears the end of her earthly life and prepares for her transition into whatever life changes into next.  I feel honored to experience this, to be with her on this journey.

As I sit with Grandma I keep thinking, this is what Jane Foster experiences with everyone.  I know Grandma’s death is near.  Jane can see the relative nearness of everyone’s death.  My family and I can share the emotionally exhausting yet grace-filled experience of being with Grandma as she prepares to move on.  As Valkyrie, Jane can stand beside all souls preparing for that transition – yet Jane is alone in her role as companion.  The grace her role affords her can be beautiful.  But the emotional exhaustion it provides can be staggering, too.

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Jane faces Heimdall’s death by his side, as Valkyrie. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Aaron, Ewing, and Grønbekk don’t shy away from this mystical – and ultimately unknowable – complexity either.  These stories take the reader into a deep, thoughtful contemplation of death’s place in existence and, in so doing, Jane Foster’s story becomes one of transcendence.  Studying and teaching theology for as long as I have, and writing as I write, I often take a general understanding of transcendence for granted.  But I think it’s important, especially in the context of this piece, to clearly define our terms.  When we talk of “the Transcendent” (with a capital letter) it equates to what we traditionally think of when we say “God” in a western Jewish/Christian/Islamic sense.  When we speak of the “transcendent” or “transcendence” (with a lower case letter) it is that which touches or expresses or leads us to this Ultimate Reality.  Karen Armstrong, theologian and historical scholar of religion, explains it as such:

You could not see, touch, or hear it but could only watch it at work in the people, objects, and natural forces around you…It was impossible to define or describe because [the Transcendent] is all-encompassing and our minds are only equipped to deal with particular beings, which can merely participate in it in a restricted manner….You could never define [the Transcendent] because language refers only to individual beings and [the Transcendent] was “the All”; it was everything that existed, as well as the inner meaning of all existence.[2]

Jane Foster: Valkyrie is a comic that dares to explore the transcendent and invites the reader to follow it into deeper contemplation of the beautiful mysteries we can never fully understand at the core of our existence.

As Valkyrie, Jane isn’t quite sure what her job is.  She is ready to jump into action as she did when she was Thor, fighting evil and protecting the innocent.  But what does it mean to be companion to the dying and the dead?  What is her role in shepherding souls to the afterlife when she herself only has a limited grasp of what it all means?  Visiting with her predecessor in Valhalla, Brunnhilde warns Jane that being Valkyrie is not like being Thor.  Jane says, “I know what I’m doing, Brunnhilde.  I was Thor, remember?”  Brunnhilde tells Jane, “This is different.  This is more.  You took on a role – but this is a responsibility.  Thor is a god.  Valkyrie…is a job.  Don’t hold on to the past.  You must learn to see through new eyes.”  (Sidebar: comic authors always use ellipses to indicate pauses in speaking, so when I use them in quotes from comics it’s because the author has them; in quotes from other texts (like with Derrida or Armstrong) it indicates, as with regular quotations, I’ve taken something out. Coolio?  Coolio.)

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Brunnhilde tries to give Jane the guidance she needs…even if Jane isn’t ready or able to accept it yet. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Part of the brilliance of this series is the admirable way in which Aaron, Ewing, and Grønbekk explore this mysterious line of life and death as well as the questions of the point, purpose, and meaning of death without ever defaulting to easy (and thus insincere) answers.  As human beings we have ALWAYS wrestled with death.  What happens when we die?  For the ancients, it was a fearful and fascinating mystery.  Here was this living, breathing being with hopes, dreams, a personality, and an interconnected web of relationships all around them and then, all of a sudden, they are just…goneWhat happened?  Where did they go?  Why did they leave?  Stories were told to explain it but the ultimate answer remained beyond their grasp.[3]  Now, millennia later, nothing has changed and we still need stories to explore and explain this vast unknown.

Stories seeking to explain and understand death have been with us for as long as we have been human and they have always been tied to religion’s purpose.  Turning to Armstrong once more, she explains, “Religion was not something tacked on to the human condition, an optional extra imposed on people by some unscrupulous priest.  The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”[4]  Further, “Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.  Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art.”[5]  And our earliest evidence of our religious thought comes to us as part of the human attempt to make sense of death.

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Due to her heroic-related absences from work, Jane has been demoted to morgue assistant to Rudy (who is one of this book’s fantastic characters). / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s leading expert on comparative mythology, explains death is where we find our earliest evidence of religious thought.  Graves from the Neanderthal period contain bodies buried with weapons, tools, and food, clearly illustrating a belief in something more after this life.[6]  In The Variety of Religions Experience, William James explains why, in part, religion has always been tied to death.  He writes, “The fact that we can die, in fact that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity.  We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature.”[7]  Exploring the something more that will not perish, finding a way to navigate the unavoidable reality of death; navigating it with purpose, meaning, and a path to the transcendent we have instinctively sought for as long as we’ve been evolutionarily recognizable as human beings, is part of what religious narratives and myths seek to help us do.

We have always sought the transcendent.  We have always sought meaning.  And we must navigate the reality of death as we try to understand the two.  We have always used stories for this but we err when we fall into the post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution trap of equating “myth” with “false” or worse, “a made up story to explain what we now understand by science.”  Science and myth exist in different realms, seeking to explore and explain different truths.  Science tries to explain how things work.  Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, meaning, and significance.[8]  They offer life models.[9]  They tie us in relationship to our nature and to the natural world as well as linking us to (and validating) a particular societal order.[10]  They also sanctify the local landscape.[11]  At their most fundamental level, myths are stories for spiritual instruction which express deep human truths.  They explore and underscore what we believe, what we struggle with, how we find our place in the universe, and how we relate to the world around us.[12]  And, importantly, myths remind us we can never truly and definitively grasp the full scope of ultimate truth.[13]  Our examinations of the meaning and purpose of death must fall into this category because we can never touch its full, ultimate truth.  Jane Foster: Valkyrie is such a story.

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Love, too, is another great mystery of life through which we can touch the transcendent.  (Also, Lisa Halloran is another one of this book’s fantastic characters.) / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The first villain Jane faces as Valkyrie is Bullseye, who’s stolen Brunnhilde’s sword, Dragonfang.   In her quest to stop Bullseye and retrieve Dragonfang, her first lesson becomes one of letting go.  Jane is fighting for the sword because it’s a piece – the last piece, as she sees it – of Brunnhilde.  But as she fights Bullseye, with Heimdall’s advice in mind, she realizes, “And all I ever wanted…was to keep the sword safe.  Keep the last piece of Brunnhilde locked away…never to be lost…never to die…I never wanted to let her go.”  As she thinks these thoughts Brunnhilde’s spirit, calling from Valhalla, says, “Oh, my sweet Lady Jane.  You will.  You must.”  With that Jane says, “Because that’s what being a Valkyrie is.  Magic and steel isn’t sacred.  People are.  Their lives.  Their deaths…  Brunnhilde.  Greatest of us all.  I let you go.”  This moment of realization is beautiful.

Jane must not only learn to let Brunnhilde go, she must also learn to accept those she can’t save.  In her battle with Bullseye, her friend Heimdall – the great sentry who stands at the foot of the Rainbow Bridge and has guarded Asgard for millennia – is mortally wounded.  His final request is that Jane not take him to Valhalla.  Rather Heimdall, who has seen everything creation holds across the Nine Realms, asks Jane to take him someplace he’s never seen.

With Heimdall by her side, she journeys through many different afterlives until she can grant his wish.  Along the way they must travel through their greatest fears and most painful memories.  But they don’t stop.  Jane narrates, “[W]e go through it anyway.  To what comes next.  There is the faintest scent of flowering almonds.  And the stars shine like the clearest diamonds.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  No human has.  Nor any god.  The name of this place unfolds in my mind.  The Far Shore…the farthest point of all life and death.  Beyond this…there is only the mystery.  I don’t see what happens next.  I’m not permitted to.  As Heimdall crosses to the final adventure, there is a flash of brilliant white light, so bright it blinds me…and then I’m…coming down.”

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Jane glimpses the Far Shore with Heimdall. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Look at Jane’s first journey as Valkyrie!  She must learn to let go of Brunnhilde.  She must accept that she can’t save Heimdall’s life.  She journeys with him into the unknown, crossing through all of her worst fears, deepest regrets, and most aching pain, only to come to the threshold of the Far Shore.  But, even as Valkyrie, she can’t see what comes next.  And the reader experiences this too, right alongside her.  Consider all this comic is saying.  What do we do when we find ourselves as companions to those we love standing on the precipice of death?  We must be willing to let go.  We must accept everyone can’t be saved.  We must face our fear and our pain.  And – if we do all of this – we can glimpse the blinding brilliance of true transcendence…even if we can never fully know what’s on the other side until we make that journey ourselves.

As the series continues, it’s mythic focus continues to unfold.  When it becomes apparent that something is wrong with Death, Valkyrie seeks out Dr. Strange.  He takes her to the Night Nurse who’s assembled a team of superpowered medics – Cardiac; Dr. Faiza Hussain, the wielder of Excalibur; and Dr. Whitman/Whit Knapp, Manikin.  Together, they venture to Death’s home to diagnose what ails her.  As they prepare to begin their journey, Dr. Strange opens the portal to Death’s realm inside the room they’ve gathered in.  Valkyrie asks, “Wait – there’s a gate to Death’s realm in here?”  Dr. Strange replies, “As I said, Valkyrie – it is in this very room.  For Death is waiting in every room.  The invisible hand of Death is all around us…but especially in the mundane.”

In Death’s Realm Dr. Strange says, “This is not a real place.  It’s a symbolic realm.  Which doesn’t mean we can’t all get killed, obviously.  But it does mean the Realm of Death shapes itself with subtly with our thoughts as a guide.  And we are all medical practitioners…”  Jane said, “I take your meaning Stephen.  When we fought the minions of Death in the Dark Forest…I identified them as antibodies.  An immune system.  If we are no longer being attacked by them…indeed Death’s immune system is failing – and time is running out.  I fear we will see no more such ‘antibodies’ during our time here.  Through this door…there is only disease.”

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As they get closer to Death, they find a painting in which Jane sees the car accident that claimed the life of her ex-husband Kevin and their son Jimmy.  She freezes in her tracks; it brings her to tears.  Since they all see something different within the frame Dr. Strange explains, “The disease is attempting to discourage us.  Showing us the true face of she whom we seek to cure – Death as she has touched us.”  Yet they carry on.  As Valkyrie enters Death’s “hospital room,” she finds the Death of the Death – a death-oriented image of the Living Tribunal – waiting for her.  But she crosses the threshold of the room as Jane Foster, not Valkyrie.

The Death of Death – “I am what your mind can grasp.  I am a point of decision.  A green door swings open, and death is irrelevant.  A pod grows new life, and death is without meaning.  So many have returned from death.  More and more.  Even you.  So Death grows weaker…sicker…until the question must be asked.  Do we need Death?  Any death?  Convince me.”

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Jane – “…Cardiac asked the same thing.  And so have I.  So many times.  Imagining a world where Kevin and Jimmy didn’t die.  Where nobody ever has to…to go through that…but that’s not a world without any death, is it?  That’s a world without people dying.  That’s not what you asked.  I’m not thinking like Valkyrie here.  She sees death as a journey.  You’d think I’d take some comfort in that.  No.  I’m thinking like a doctor.  And nobody respects death like a doctor.  If there was no death at all.  If nothing died.  Not people, not animals or plants…not germs…not cells…a universe of living cells that don’t die but still reproduced.  I’d call that a cancerverse.  And I don’t think I want to live there.  The end of pain…and fear…and sorrow…these are things to strive for.  For all our days.  The end of Death……I don’t think that means life.  Is that – is that good enough?  After all this?  Are you convinced yet?  Are you…?”

Death – “I am healed.  It has been decided.  The process of death will continue.  This plane will not transition into a cancerverse.  The Death of Death was convinced of the need for my existence.  Are you?”

Jane – “…of course not.  But ‘ours is not to reason why,’ is it?  Boss.”

When Valkyrie returns, the other heroes ask if they won.  She says, “Death…is with us still.  Death will always be with us.  We did not lose.  But did we win?”  From that question, the reader turns the page and the issue closes with full page panel, a haunting image of Death standing outside the burning car Kevin and Jimmy died in.  The striking power of Cafu’s art is on full display here.  I cried the first time I saw it.  It’s one of those “a picture is worth a thousand words” sort of things.  With haunting profundity, the reader is made very, very aware of what this “victory” costs.  And Jane knows this, too.

The narrative takes the reader to this point, this confusing and painful and heartbreaking truth – even if we can never fully understand it, even if we rally and fight against it, even if we can’t see the point or the purpose…death is necessary.  So we must find some way to accept it.  We must find some way to make our peace with it.  Jane Foster: Valkyrie is a story that seeks to help us do just that.

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Jane speaks with Death. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This depth isn’t lost with Al Ewing handing the co-writing reins over to Torunn Grønbekk either.  While COVID and the accompanying lockdown that followed has slowed the release of her first story arc, the two issues we have illustrate she’s honoring and continuing to expand all this comic did over its first seven issues.  With issue #8, a horde of shadow creatures begin to swarm over the earth.  What they touch for too long, they kill…but in a most horrendous way.  These creatures don’t just destroy the earthly life of those they touch.  They destroy the soul.  They leave nothing in their wake.  So as the Avengers do their thing to protect the surface, Valkyrie and Thor Odinson descend into the earth itself to find the source of this infection.  As the creatures attack Jane thinks, “The world trembles.  And it’s cold.  So cold.  I could sense hundreds of souls being torn from the world.  Gone, like they never were.  Beyond sorrow.  Beyond loss.  Beyond fear.  I can’t reach any of the them.  I can’t bring them home.”

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Jane battles back against the shadow creatures. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Jane and Thor learn they are facing something called the Rokkva.  In a flashback Odin tells a young Thor it, “was the Anti-Life.  An entity that is the opposite of life.  The opposite of a soul.”  Look at the theology here!  Death, as mysterious and frightening and ultimately unknowable as it is, is a part of life.  So the “Anti-Life” isn’t death!  Because death is a part of life.  Also, the Rokkva isn’t just the opposite of life.  It’s the opposite of a soul.  So the soul, the divine spark within us all, includes both life and death.  The soul exists within that transition, that journey, on both sides of that equation.  I’ve no idea what is to come, where facing the Rokkva will lead Jane Foster, but I can’t wait to find out.

This is a special book.  I’ve not encountered another comic that does what Jane Foster: Valkyrie does.  I’ve not encountered another comic that even tries.  This is a striking example of a modern myth, in the fullest sense of the term.  In a genre of resurrections, false deaths, and clone and/or alternate reality replacements, Jane Foster: Valkyrie invites the reader to sit within the profound vastness of all that is unknown about the reality of death.  And it shows us, if we can find a way to do so, we will glimpse for ourselves a flash of the sacredness awaiting those whose souls depart for the Far Shore.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

 

Note:  As much of this was written at Grandma’s house over the course of the last week, special thanks go to my cousin Jaelyn for using her phone when I needed research help (re: when I was too lazy to take out my phone and Google a few things (because obvs. Grandma doesn’t have WiFi so I couldn’t just do it on my computer (I mean she’s ninety-six!))) as well as my cousin Jordan and my brother David for their editorial help (re: offered during the times they read over my shoulder as I typed and questioned some of my word choice and/or sentence structure).

_______________________________________________

[1] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41-3.

[2] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 11-12.

[3] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 89.

[4] Armstrong, The Case for God, 9.

[5] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), xix.

[6]Campbell and Moyers, 89-90.

[7] William James, The Variety of Religious Experience, (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

[8] Campbell and Moyers, 4.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Ibid., 113.

[12] Ibid., 71.

[13] Ibid., 23.

12 thoughts on “Jane Foster: Valkyrie – Glimpsing Transcendence in Death

  1. While I love a happy ending I believe one of the bravest and most important things art can do is to help us face our own mortality, this sounds like a good example. I think it is important that such perspectives are not confined to the heaviest classics but available in comics, films and even children’s literature (e.g. The Brothers Lionheart, my favourite example) as we all need it from time to time. I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother, take care!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. Grandma passed last Monday (I actually turned my eulogy into a post on the blog – I wanted to pay tribute to her in that way 🙂 ) and it led to those twin poles of emotions – sadness at her loss and happiness that she lived such a beautiful life. So I appreciate the warm thoughts and condolences. Thank you.

      And yes! I second everything you said here. I love that this story is out there and I love that it’s in a medium that can make it accessible to a wide variety of readers. My school has a class on “Death & Dying” and if I taught it we would absolutely read this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. And if you had met Grandma, I guarantee – in addition to being welcomed into the family – she would’ve sent you home with enough food for the week :D. Haha. that was how Grandma liked to roll.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you and I’m doing my best. There’s been lots of family time so we can be together as we mourn and as we heal.

      And yes! The comic is incredible! I’ve just learned issue #10 was its final issue and that made me sad as there’s really nothing else in the comic medium that does what this was doing. But, c’este la vie.

      Like

    1. Thank you – this means a lot. I do think I was fortunate in many ways in this. To have the chance to just gather, with and around Grandma, for those thirteen days she was home after the hospital before she passed was a blessing. They were certainly emotionally exhausting in many ways, but they were nourishing, too. Grandma threw one more two week party on her way out :). We were all at her house for ten or twelve hours a day – laughing, talking, playing cards, telling stories, all gathered around her bed in her sunroom – and that’s exactly how she would’ve wanted it. She died as she lived and there was a lot of grace to be found in that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s so touching. That’s probably the best situation any of us could ask for at the end, surrounded by loved ones. And those final moments always stick with us, so it’s ideal for you and everyone involved. Moving on in peace can be really beautiful.

        Liked by 1 person

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