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.