If you’ve ever watched a loved one suffer through a terminal illness, you know the daily agony—not just for the dying person, but for everyone involved. You see their pain and feel as victim to it as they do. No matter how much time you spend with them, trying to save up all of their essence—enough to last you for the rest of your life—you always leave with a feeling of helplessness. After a period of time, you may even find yourself praying for the end so their misery can stop. But then when that time comes, you realize that their end is only your beginning.
I speak from experience. I have lost a few people this way: my father was on ‘death watch’ for many years after his fifth heart attack and spent 2 months hospitalized before his passing. Although we were not close, he was still my father…and it was a hard to watch a brusque, proud man like him reduced to a feeble human kept alive by machines. My mother had acute myelodysplastic leukemia and spent several months withering away in the hospital before finally passing. She was a beautiful and kind woman, and it seemed the cruelest of all of life’s tricks for her to suffer so terribly at the end. And of course, you’ve read about my sister, who died of breast cancer that spread throughout her body. Watching cancer ravage her body, part by part, was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever experienced in this lifetime.
Last night, my son in law (James) lost his father. James’ father has been quite ill for a long time now. A couple of years ago, John (James’ dad) was a vibrant, fit, engaging man who was entering retirement with his wife; they had big plans to travel the world. Then, the doctors discovered a small tumor in his brain.
Since that time, John’s health has been a progression of hopeful ups and disappointing downs. In the middle of the ups, he and James were able to take a couple of trips; memories that will comfort James in his loss. James and his dad were very close.
Watching James suffer and make endless trips to Chicago to spend time with his dying father while still trying to maintain his regular life: wife, kids, job, has refreshed the grief I felt during the time my mom was dying…and my sister was dying. The flights, the talking, the hand holding, the crying, the grasping of any memory that could sustain me after, and finally, the praying that they would be allowed to leave their misery. Yes, for each, I prayed for their death in the end. It seemed so inhumane for their crippled bodies, besieged by illness, to continue to exist.
I wish I could say that I felt better after they passed. I wish I could tell James that now. Initially, I did feel better; only in that I was relieved that my loved one was no longer suffering. But after you spend such a huge lump of your time caring for, worrying about, and traveling to see this beloved person, their death leaves a gaping hole in your life. People stop asking “how’s your mom..or your sister…or your dad?” and it makes you feel so sad that nobody speaks of them anymore. In place of the questions, you get pursed lips and a sad look. It feels really awkward, and awful.
That sense of impending doom—the one that has been hanging over your head for maybe upwards of two years—has lifted, but in its place is nothingness…which makes you feel kind of anxious. You don’t realize what a large part of your life has been consumed by their illness…and you wonder if when they died, a part of you died with them. And then, eventually, you remember the times you prayed for their death. Even though those prayers were for them…to put them out of their suffering…guilt comes roaring in. Guilt feels almost comforting.
I don’t say these things to scare anyone, or make you feel bad, but rather to illuminate the fact that when a loved one dies after an extended illness, there are some really big issues left to deal with. If you know someone who is losing someone, or has lost someone to an extended illness, please show them an extra ounce of compassion. It is always hard to lose someone we love, but to slowly watch their bodies be eaten away by a terrible disease is mental anguish beyond what you could imagine—and I hope you never have to experience. The trauma of their death leaves permanent scars.
So, ask that surviving spouse, child, or parent out to dinner or for a cup of coffee. Encourage them to talk about their loss. Do this for a long time…the pain of loss grows before it ebbs; and in the case of an extended illness, the scars run deep. The image of their loved one, in his or her final state, will never leave their minds, no matter how many good memories they have to temper it.
This blog is in memory of John Claney: a wonderful husband, father, father in law, grandpa (to Toby too), and friend. I loved him from the moment I met him. He was fun and mischievous and loved all people. I was truly blessed to know him in my lifetime.