Have you lost a loved one after a long illness? Or are you grieving the sudden death of someone close to you?
Both of these situations are extremely painful, and even though some would debate which is "better," I'm here to validate the distinct experience of both journeys.
Dealing with Teminal Illness
My father, mother, sister, and best friend since childhood all died after lengthy battles against incurable illnesses. I was caregiver for some; other times my role was visitor, observer, and witness.
Watching a loved one in pain is excruciating. No, it's not the same physical pain they're feeling, but an instinctive agony that permeates the mind and, in certain ways, the body.
I didn't want to be there but couldn't stay away. I wished desperately that I (or anyone) could do something to lift them from their suffering. It became difficult to eat, sleep, and manage my daily tasks. And I prayed for release...theirs and mine.
I remember asking repeatedly for their freedom from suffering, all the while knowing that it would mean permanent loss for me. Part of me yearned to get back to life as it had been, and part of me didn't want to face a world without my loved ones.
I wanted them to be free from pain and at peace, and I also wanted their ongoing presence in my life. I struggled with guilt for the relief that came with death, and I also would have given anything for their complete recovery.
Such opposite emotions and thoughts; all are compelling at the same time.
The Shock of Sudden Tragedy
My son and my nephew both died in young adulthood (but many years apart) after tragic accidents. While it's true that we were all spared the agony of long term illness-related misery, the shock that came with the news of their deaths was equally debilitating.
There's an unbelievable quality to news of death like this; you just can't quite absorb it. I remember asking the same questions over and over, as if somehow the answers would change or it would start to make sense.
Time slowed and I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach and had the wind knocked out of me. Everything felt surreal and distant in those early days of shock, which delayed the beginning of grieving in an important and necessary way.
In each instance, we were told my dear nephew and my beloved son knew no suffering. They were killed instantly, and for that I felt grateful.
But oh the pain and guilt around what wasn't said! If only I had known our time was limited, I would have said and done things so differently! And wondering about their last moments - last thoughts; last feelings - created waves of anguish.
Different Journeys; Same Destination
Losing a loved one through lengthy illness or sudden death is traumatic no matter how you look at it. Terminal illness allows for some amount of pre-grieving or mental preparation, even though that in no way makes the loss any easier. Sudden death gets it all over with in an instant, even though we're left longing for farewell.
Anticipating a loss does not protect us from the shock of finality, and sudden death does not erase our yearning for closure.
Having experienced both kinds of loss, here is what I know for sure:
We are never ready to say goodbye to people we love.
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Essays on Grief Resilience