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 recall 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.

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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.

The Power of Grief

Even though grief has been with me on and off for twenty-one months, I still don’t understand where it comes from or where it gets its power.

Like most people, I used to assume that grief was merely the deep sadness we feel after the death of someone we loved, and that any feelings beyond that came from an innate weakness, an inability to cope, self-pity, or a desire to create drama and importance in one’s life. When my brother died, and then a year later when my mother died, I felt what I expected to — deep sadness but nothing more, which enforced my idea of what grief is.

But all deaths do not affect us the same. During my life mate/soul mate’s long illness, I thought I’d become inured to the idea of his death. I’d even looked forward to the end of his suffering. I knew I’d feel sad and lonely, but I had no concerns about being able to continue my life. I’m strong and independent, and have never minded being alone.

And then he died.

At first, I was glad his suffering was over. I just sat there numb, waiting for the funeral director to come and collect his body. But then, like an ever-growing tsunami, grief washed over me — grief such as I never knew existed. The continuous onslaught of intense emotions, physical reactions, and psychological torments, along with the inability to understand how totally gone he was made it impossible to sort out any one feeling from the global trauma.

I started blogging about grief when I realized most novelists got it wrong. (I can’t tell you how many times writers have dismissed the grief of their characters with a simple: He went through the five stages of grief. Sheesh. For most of us, the Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t even begin to explain what we are going through.) I continued blogging about grief when I realized how important it was for me and my fellow bereft to try to understand what we are experiencing and why.

None of us are weak. None of us lack the ability to cope. None of us are self-pitying. None of us are self-indulgent, wallowing in grief for the sake of making ourselves feel important. None of us are drama queens, wanting to draw attention to ourselves or make people feel sorry for us. (We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, at least not often, so why should anyone feel sorry for us?) Nor have any of us chosen our grief. It was thrust on us with such power that we still reel from it months and perhaps even years later. We aren’t dwelling on our grief. It’s dwelling on us. Or in us.

Although everyone’s grief is different, grief does follow patterns of ebb and flow. For many of us in our second year, the eighteen month mark came with a huge upsurge in grief. And now the end of this year — the end of the first full year without our loved ones — is causing another upsurge. I do not know why this is so, I just know that it’s the latest manifestation of the process.

I’ve passed many (maybe most) of grief’s milestones, though I’m sure future milestones will surprise me as I continue this journey through grief. I can deal with these milestones. They come. They go. But no matter how I feel — sad or unsad — he is still and will always be dead. I can understand that he is out of my life, but I cannot understand his total goneness from this earth. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief comes from. Perhaps that unknowableness is where grief gets its power.

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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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.