Grief After the Death
Reactions and Assumptions
Since my mother died in September, I’ve noticed an interesting response from some people. It’s almost as if because my mother was elderly—just shy of her 93rd birthday—that her death is easily dismissed and somehow doesn’t warrant grief. “Well, she had a good long life.” The subtle message is “Don’t be sad.”
Additionally, because most people know my mom suffered from dementia over the last four years of her life, there is also an element of how relieved I must be not to have to take care of her anymore.
Well, for one thing, I wasn’t taking care of her. Mom was in an excellent care home four minutes from my home and only near me for the final ten months of her life. With the exception of six days when I was out of town and two days when I was sick, I visited her every day during that time. That was my choice. It wasn’t a burden. I only had to take her to medical appointments (admittedly not an easy task) and make decisions in consultation with the very capable staff of her care home. I was not her caregiver.
So the assumption that it is a major relief for me that my mother is dead is not at all true. As for the assumption that she had a “good long life,” I’m not so sure about that. A long life? Yes. A good life? I really don’t know how she would assess her life. From my point of view, she was unhappy for most of her adult life. That makes me very sad. I deeply hope she viewed it differently when she was still capable of remembering it.
Listening to actual caregivers who are grieving a loss, I don’t hear any profound relief that they are no longer on call 24/7 and can rest now, make plans, go places, and “have a life.” They are mourning all those years that their loved one was dependent upon them instead of being an active spouse, parent, sibling, or child. They are mourning the loss of function whether it was physical, cognitive, or both on behalf of the loved one and also for themselves in relationship to their loved one. And now, for the most part, they are alone and deeply grieving.
We are going to grieve so many things when someone dies. We grieve that person, but there is so much more to grieve than just the disappearance of a particular person from our lives.
We grieve the loss of a good relationship, or perhaps we grieve that the relationship wasn’t what we hoped it would be.
We may mourn that the lifetime of our loved one may have been a disappointment to them, unhappy overall, or beset with misfortune.
We may mourn how that person negatively affected our own life. Life and relationships are complicated.
And, unfortunately, every death brings up the death of anyone else important to us, turning the current grief into layers of grief. It can be overwhelming.
Oh, and then there’s that pesky reminder of our own mortality and vulnerability because we know there are other people in our lives who we could lose at any time.
Responses to Grief
So, to state the obvious (which somehow does not seem to be obvious to everyone), death is always a blow. Don’t try to make it not a blow for someone else. Statements, such as They are in a better place, or At least they are not suffering anymore, or They had a good long life, or Well, now you can get on with your life are not at all consoling. In fact, just the opposite. These statements come across as dismissive and minimizing at best.
What is helpful are comments such as:
It’s always hard to lose a parent no matter how old they are.
I haven’t lost a spouse (or a sibling or a child or a friend). I can only guess what you must be going through.
I’d like to have you over for a cup of coffee or tea.
And the ever safe I’m so sorry for your loss.