Dealing With Grief After a Loved One’s Long-Term Illness

There are so many misconceptions about grief that still, after two years of being steeped in the culture of the bereft, I am surprised by people’s comments. I met a woman the other day who asked about my experiences with the death of my life mate/soul mate, and when I told her that he had been sick for many years, she said, “It must have been a lot easier for you than if he had died suddenly in a car accident or something.” Um . . . no.

All deaths bring trauma to the survivors, and you cannot compare relative severities. If someone dies suddenly, the survivors have to deal with unbelievable shock, with the dreadful chores of laying the dead to rest, with the after effects of the loss, with the despair of not having been able to say good-bye, with finding hurtful troves of personal belongings that the deceased would have gotten rid of if they had known they were dying, and probably dozens of other issues of which I am unaware.

If someone dies after a prolonged illness, you still have the shock. Even though you know the person is dying, you get used to it. Their dying becomes a fact of your life, and you just somehow assume that is the way it will always be — their dying, your struggling to live despite it. And when they die, it comes as an unbelievable shock. And, as with any death, the total goneness of the person adds to the confusion and shock. You expected to feel the same way when they were gone as you always did, because, after all, you’d been preparing yourself for years for that eventuality. But you don’t feel the same, you don’t feel any way you could ever have imagined. The onslaught of physical/emotional/spiritual trauma is the same as if he had died suddenly, because all death is sudden. He is alive and then a fraction of a second later, he is dead. There is no in between state. And there is no way to prepare yourself for his total goneness. Nor is there any way to prepare yourself for the reactions of your body and mind. These reactions come without your knowledge, your consent, or your inclination.

Afterward, of course, you have to deal with the chores of laying the dead to rest and with the effects of the loss. Sometimes you have to deal with the despair of not having been able to say good-bye — often doctors hold out hope, wrongly assuming they are doing you a service, when in fact the truth would have been more compassionate. At the very least, you’d have had a chance to say good-bye. This might not seem like much to those who have not suffered a grievous loss, but I did have a chance to say good-bye, and it brought me enormous comfort over the past couple of years. I cannot imagine the pain of not being able to say good-bye or saying one last “l love you” or hugging one more time. Those are moments that are stolen from so many bereft, moments that can never be captured.

Those whose loved ones take many years to die end up with all sorts of traumas and issues because of the long dying. You hate yourself for having taken his dying for granted. You are appalled at yourself for all the times you got angry at or irritated by his infirmities. You feel guilty that you held fast to your own life while his seeped away. You wish you could take back every impatient word, every bristling stance, every horrible thought. (I remember once wishing he’d just die and put us both out of our misery. It was a fleeting thought, and understandable, but still, I wish I’d been less human at that moment and more humane.) All of these traumas add to your grief, because each has to be acknowledged, understood, forgiven.

If your mate died after suffering a long time, you do have the scant comfort of knowing he is no longer in pain, but you also have to deal with the agonizing corollary that he shouldn’t have had to suffer at all.

Even if it were easier to deal with death after a prolonged illness rather than a sudden death, (or vice versa) the truth is still the same, and still unbearable. He is dead, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

18 Responses to “Dealing With Grief After a Loved One’s Long-Term Illness”

  1. Mary Says:

    Excellent, pat. You have said it so well you also said what experienced and felt.all of it when Bill died

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      How did we survive all of that? How are we continuing to survive? I still don’t know, but here we are.

      • Mary Friedel-Hunt Says:

        I just re read what I typed. I must have been sound asleep what with all the errors. I do not know how we got through it and I have days now when I do not know how I will survive…but I (we) will. Missing Bill is so big. The change of seasons here (in the 60s) brings everyone out having fun etc. and makes me so lonely for him as we would have headed to the woods today….for a long hike, stopping to look at the beauty and enjoy each other. Right now, even spring hurts.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I’m so sad for all of us. I am stunned at my naivety or ignorance or whatever. I had no idea so many people in the world carried the burden of such grievous losses. Had no idea how it would feel.

  2. Tami Bates Says:

    he wwas in and out of sleep , ithe drs called me and his daughter into another room and asked us, if we wanted to just make him comfortable . i went and woke him, made sure he knew what i was saying. and he told me, let me go. im suffering to much,
    i still not cleaned out nothing, even a pair of pjs is still in the bathroom and i cant manage to throw them out or even move them
    we went thru, the hes only got 2 hours, 2 says , a week, you really need to call the family in , and then he get better. he wold come back home and it just go on as before. then he back to , call in the family in. the night he died, we all had been thru that dance when they told us, 5/6 hours but doubt that. so we all thought yea yea . so we was there his family all came up and then, i figure i take the 14yr old home to sleep she was so wore out, and his brother went on somewhers and his sisiter went home to eat and get her meds and shower , to sit the next day ( it was like 11 pm ) so like 15 ppl left.again. and only my,our 18yr and his other child by his other wife, 30. was there. got home, layed down and tried to doze before i went back. my 18yro kept texting me, o moma he is so sick . im sorry to say, i pretty much thought yea yea, i know. she then text, he is having trouble breathing ( well didnt he always) then she called screaming and crying, that he was gone , dead . i was still pretty much yea yea , cause i really didnt think he would ever actually die . it sort of sunk in and she was telling me to come back to get her , and i couldnt make it to my bedroom door. the 14yr old came , when she heard me, and told 18yr, get her sister to bring her home (she hated so she caled a friend, but boy she still pissed at me cause i wasnt able to come get her) he pass almost 1 am . me and his sister just thought we had lots of time

    i have all of this, what if. should i have done .

    and i have times i had been snippy about him eaiting and his vitamins . i had become a guard and not a mate . made sure he ate, drank enough water, took his meds , kept him warm ., and constantly bitch about his smoking , the drs finally told me, he is dying, let him go ahead and have them. but he couldnt breathe , and he was on oxygen and wanted to smoke.

    i have been to a shrink, and they ask, are you suicidal, god no, just the oppostie, im terrify of dying
    im have ramble, so i dont know if any of this makse sense

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Tami, yes it makes sense, painfully so. I did the same thing — he’d say he was dying, and I’d think, “yeah, yeah, heard that before.” But he always did get better. And then he died. It’s normal to be snippy about making sure they eat or being impatience with their rambling talk, but their deaths make it seem so terrible. It was hard dealing with their illness, hard dealing with their deaths, and hard dealing with the memory of all that we did or didn’t do. So much pain.

      I too am afraid of death now — I’ve seen how horrible it can be.

      Thank you for telling me your story. Wishing you peace.

  3. Holly Bonville Says:

    I didn’t get to say goodbye. The doctors kept saying we had more time so when he did die, it was a complete shock. The whole thing was a nightmare that I re live over and over. The frustration, the what-if’s, the whole experience. The last time we went into the hospital and no one told me what was going on. He had gone for a CT, so I wasn’t even with him when he did die. If only…

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      There are so many things that compound grief, and one’s dealing with doctors, the frustrations, the not getting to say good-bye is terrible. People always think that if someone took a long time dying that you’d have a chance to say good-bye, but that is just not true. And it is important. One of the challenges of grief is to find a way to say good-bye. I never thought I would say this since the whole experience was so traumatic, but I was one of the lucky ones. I did get to say good-bye. Except I didn’t, come to think of it, at least not in so many words. But we did make our peace.

      I’m sorry you weren’t with him when he died. As traumatic as being there is, it must be even more traumatic not to be there. Too many if only’s.

  4. Joy Collins Says:

    I thought I was going to die from the what-if’s at first. And I wanted to. I still do. I am not afraid of dying. I welcome it. After all this time, life still holds no joy for me. I am just going through the motions, marking time until I know not what.
    And, as you know, in my case, John’s death [I still can’t stand that word] was sudden, totally unexpected. I went to sleep with him alive and woke up a couple of hours later with him gone. No hint, no forewarning. Just gone. Irretrievably, totally, nothing I could do about it, gone. We didn’t get to say good-bye because we didn’t think there was going to be a need to. Luckily, we had spent a wonderful weekend together and all the memories of the last few days were full of laughter and smiles and happiness – just like our marriage. And our last words together were of happiness too.
    But the enormity of John’s gone-ness still hits me fresh every day. A part of me wishes I had been there with him when he left. I kept thinking maybe I could have done something. But if I had been there and couldn’t have done anything and I had to watch him go, I think I would have gone mad.
    There is no good answer. The only good thing would be if our loves were still here, happy and whole.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I cannot imagine the enormity of your shock. Can’t imagine surviving it.

      You’re right, there is no good answer. There is no comparing the relative horrors of how we lost someone so close to us. Each death diminishes us and the world, no matter how it came about.

  5. Joylene Butler (@cluculzwriter) Says:

    I ran into a woman whose daughter was murdered. We got to talking. I shared a little of my story. She listened. Then she said, “Well, at least neither of your sons were murdered,” then changed the subject.

    After 37 years of marriage, my dad died and my mum was left to figure out what to do next. She seemed so strong to me, never complaining, never wondering “why me?” And then about 18 months after my dad died, Mum got new glasses. She was anxious for our opinions, and even though I found them very non-descriptive, I told her I thought they looked pretty kewl. She looked at me for a second then out of nowhere, began to sob her heart out. My first thought was she saw through my lie. But when she gained control, she admitted that Dad wasn’t there so she could show him her new glasses.

    She lived another 19 years without him. I feel so sad that I never asked her what it was like. I just assumed we were all suffering in the same way.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      In a way, we are all suffering the same way — the loss of a significant person in our lives is excruciatingly painful no matter how they died, but there are a lot of differences. As I pointed out, you can’t compare relative severities, though I’ve come to the realization that the absolute worst thing would be to have someone disappear. For the rest of your life, you’d never know what happened. At least I know what happened. For whatever good that dows me.

  6. Mark Renton Says:

    A good friend of mine lost her husband suddenly. He was super-fit and dropped dead of a heart attack in his early 40’s whilst out for a run. My wife died the next week, after a 2 1/2 year fight against breast cancer. Did my friend suffer worse because of the sudden shock, or did I suffer worse for the 18 months of knowing that death was almost certain, and the guilt towards the end of just wishing she would die and put and end to her suffering and let us just get on with sorting out the best memorial we could possibly manage? In the end you realize that there is no competition when it comes to death, regardless of the nature it is traumatic for those left behind.

    In this case the only blessings were we could put our kids together and they could bond with other kids in the same situation, and she and I could support each other in our grief.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Well put. There is no competition when it comes to death. It is always traumatic and painful. It’s good you both have someone to support you in your grief, but I wish none of us ever had to go through this. Wishing you peace.

  7. alec Says:

    I can’t believe some of the comments I’m reading here. My partner died 2 months ago and many of the things I am reading resonate very strongly with me. As one contributor has already noted my partner and I did not say goodbye. He often said that he was dying and I stopped listening. Then suddenly he did. After a year preparing for his death the shock was nevertheless unimaginable.

  8. Christeen Morton Says:

    This was a very helpful article. I am dealing with the loss of my husband after he fought cancer for 4 years. I was the one who took care of him. Almost 100% by myself. I knew from the beginning he wasn’t going to make it. I grieved him for 4 years. Now he’s gone and I know I loved him well.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m sorry about your husband. Sometimes it’s confusing when they’re gone. We’re glad they are out of pain, but their care was our life for so long that their loss is doubly hard. Loving them is all we can do. Wishing you peace.

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