Jeff and I had such a deep almost cosmic connection that for many years, I thought I’d be pulled into death when he died. It didn’t really bother me; it just seemed as if that’s the way it would be. Later though, as he neared death, it began to seem unfair. Because he was five years older than I was, I felt that if I died when he did, I’d be cheated out of five years of my life.
About a year before he died, I hugged him and accidentally touched his left ear. I know now cancer had metastasized all the way up his left side and into his brain, but at the time, all I knew was that he pushed me away, wincing in agony. Some part of me closed down at that moment, and a voice deep inside me said, “He might be dying, but I have to live.” During that year, we went our separate ways, he to dying, me to living. Then, six weeks before he died, he made the connection with me again. He needed to talk about what was happening to him so he could gather courage to face what was coming, and during that daylong conversation, I remembered why I’d fallen in love with him all those years ago.
Because of the disconnect during our final year, a year where I felt dissociated from him and our life, I didn’t expect to grieve, so the depth of my pain stunned me. I struggled for many years to deal with the wreckage of our shared life. Although he did not pull all of me into death with him, apparently, he did pull part of me into the abyss, and that hole — that amputation — will always be a part of me.
Well, I’ve had those five years I was afraid I wouldn’t get, and six more besides, but mixed in with all the other chaotic feelings of grief were feelings of shame and guilt and betrayal that in the end, my love wasn’t strong enough to keep him here. And it wasn’t strong enough to take me where he had to go. I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to be dragged into death with him, which could be one of the reasons he dissociated from me during that last year. He wanted me to have a happy life after he was gone. In fact, almost the last thing he ever said was to assure me that things would work out for me.
This guilt wasn’t strictly survivor’s guilt because I realized neither of us had a choice. That voice inside me didn’t say “I want to live.” It said, “I have to live.”
And he had to die. With all that was wrong with him, he couldn’t have survived.
Still, whether this is a case of survivor’s guilt or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that many people have similar feelings of shame and guilt when they lose a mate. As if we somehow failed them. As if we failed the test of love. As if we don’t deserve to continue to live. As if our “letting” them die was a shameful act. (In fact, someone said that to me, “How could you have let him die?”)
We feel ashamed too of our feeling that all of this is unfair, but we have that sense of terrible unfairness for a good reason. It is unfair that they died. It is unfair that we have to live this half-life without our mates while others continue their shared lives.
And then, as our shared life begins to fade into the shadows of yesterday, we feel as if we’re doing something shameful when we forget them for a minute or two.
At some point, though, we learn to just let these feelings go. They are truly not important and perhaps don’t even reflect the truth. During their last days and even months, we didn’t always act in the saintliest manner. Even if we knew they were dying, we didn’t KNOW it. We thought it would always be the way it was — our struggling to live despite the death sentence hanging over us. I do know the truth, though. No matter how we now view our behavior both before and after they died, we did the best we could. If we could have done better, we would have, but it’s almost impossible to be our best, most loving selves when dealing with the chaos of end times.
And we’re still doing the best we can despite our mates not being here. Although we often think we have a choice, we don’t always. People don’t choose to have fatal accidents or die from terrible diseases. Those of us left behind didn’t choose our fate, either. It wasn’t a case where we had to decide which of us died and which lived. The choice was out of our control.
I can’t tell you not to feel guilt or shame that you are still living and your beloved is not because everything to do with death, dying, and grief defies logic. We feel what we feel. Still, if you sense that these feeling are getting the best of you, try to let them go. You don’t need to feel guilt or shame. There are enough torments with all the things that life throws at us during the long years of grief that we don’t need to torment ourselves.
This post was written at the request of a fellow griever. If anyone wants me to write about a certain aspect of grief, feel free to leave a suggestion. Since little of grief is truly unique to any one of us, chances are I went through whatever you’re concerned about.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator
July 11, 2021 at 10:08 am
My mother died with cancer. The last day in the hospice, I remember her struggling to breath, and although the nurse said she was heavily medicated, I still wondered if she was in any way aware of the struggle. She had a lifelong fear of water and drowning, and would have been terrified. After she died, along with the grief was a sort of happiness or relief that the struggle was over, then feelings of guilt for feeling the relief. I’d known she was terminal for over a year prior, but the grief after her death affected me in ways and for longer than I expected. That, in turn, lead to feelings of shame that I wasn’t entirely back to normal in short order. Complicated stuff, this business of grief.
My otherwise healthy wife died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. I’m mostly over the initial shock, and the mental fogginess that goes with it. With the Bob, there hasn’t been a lot we’re allowed to do since then, or people we’ve been allowed to do it with. I have a longstanding habit of daily walks, which was allowed, and I asked an old friend (mainly of my wife) who lives alone if she’d like to walk with me. Over the year or so since, we’ve become close. It may turn out to be something more than that at some point, but not in the short term. For now, we just seem to enjoy each others company, and to the extent we enjoy doing things together, we do.
My adult children, daughters in particular, have reacted to this with a lot of anger. Although initially supportive of my having someone to talk to, they’re now lashing out at me with some pretty hurtful stuff. I do understand how their mother’s death could affect them for longer than some might expect, but I’m concerned this lashing out might be a way of avoiding the painful process of coming to terms with the fact their mother is gone.
Anyway, all of this is to suggest maybe a post on how others react to the death of a spouse, and how those reactions affect how we and they get through it.
July 11, 2021 at 11:06 am
A lot of the children dealing with a the loss of a parent, especially teenagers and adults, resent the intrusion of what they think is a “replacement.” I know one guy whose teenage children went to live with their mother’s sister after he remarried. the marriage wasn’t really soon, either. It was at least a couple of years, maybe longer. She’s been gone maybe ten years, and only now are his kids starting to talk to him again.
I wonder if part of the lashing out is not just that they are avoiding coming to terms with the fact that their mother is gone, but also resentment because of what they think is your too easy acceptance.
It’s nice that you have someone to talk to. Even so, I imagine the loneliness for your wife is still hard. That’s what people don’t seem to realize — that a possible new love does not in any way lessen a previous love. In fact, I tend to think that’s one of the works of grief, giving us a greater capacity for love. A tree bursts out of the confines of its bark to allow new growth, and when our hearts burst from grief, perhaps they are doing the same thing — allowing room for growth so that our hearts can encompass both the old and the new love.
I like your suggestion for a blog post. I’ll have to let it stew in my brain pan and see what I can come up with.
July 11, 2021 at 10:09 am
I can relate well to this. For a long time, it seemed to me he had chosen to shut me out by not sharing that he wanted to just be done with it all, that he saw no use in continuing on with no quality of life. Others pointed out that he probably just wanted to spare me the worrying, which I can appreciate, but at the same time, what insights and understanding would have been granted me if I had been allowed to go as far as I could in his dying process? of course, it did not help that we were surrounded by clueless, unprofessional “caregivers” who didn’t recognize that a patient was preparing to let go, so that awareness has tempered the guilt. That, and the awareness that we simply aren’t taught how to die or how to support someone in dying, not unless we actively seek out this learning.
July 11, 2021 at 10:51 am
It’s common for those who are dying to shut out the living, though I’m not exactly sure why. Partly, I know, it’s to spare loved ones from having to worry, though we worry more when they shut us out. Partly, I’m sure it has to do with disentangling their life from others so they can let go. Partly, I think, it’s that dying takes a lot of work. There’s no room for anyone else when all their energy goes to dealing with dying and everything that goes along with death. And partly, I imagine people don’t have the words to talk about what they are going through.
Whatever side of death we’re on, whether we’re the one leaving or the one staying, it’s a terribly difficult thing to deal with.