An unimaginable, indescribable loss has taken place. It has inflicted a wound so deep that numbness and excruciating pain are the material of which it is made.
Everyone experiences many losses throughout life, but the death of a loved one is unmatched for its emptiness and profound sadness. Your world stops. You know the exact time your loved one died-or the exact moment you were told. It is marked in your mind. Your world takes on a slowness, a surrealness. It seems strange that the clocks in the world continue when your inner clock does not.
Your life continues, but you are not sure why. A different life appears before you, one in which your loved one will no longer be physically present. No one can give you words to make you feel better; there are none. You will survive, though you may not be sure how or even if you want to.
Your loss and the grief that accompanies it are very personal, different from anyone else's. Others may share the experience of their losses. They may try to console you in the only way they know. But your loss stands alone in its meaning to you, in its painful uniqueness.
Brian, in his late fifties, had to have his leg amputated. It was a terrible loss. During rehabilitation sessions he saw another man who had had both legs amputated, and now he thought less of his loss and felt unjustified in feeling bad. He said he suddenly realized there were people worse off than he was. The next day in his rehabilitation session he saw a young man with both legs who just needed a cane, and then he felt his loss more keenly. The two men had a chance to talk after their session about what had brought them to this point. Brian shared that he had lost his leg because of diabetes. The man with a cane told of the car accident that had caused a minor injury to his back and said he needed to regain his strength. Brian, still comparing losses, said, "Well, at least you have two legs." The man with the cane said, "Yes I do, but I lost my wife in the accident."
When you compare losses, someone else's may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are painful. If you lost a husband at seventy, there will be someone who lost a husband at forty-eight. If you lost a parent at twelve, there will be someone who lost their parent at five years old-or at fifteen years. Losses are very personal and comparisons never apply. No loss counts more than another. It is your loss that counts for you. It is your loss that affects you. Your loss is deep and deserves your personal attention without comparison. You are the only one who can survey the magnitude of your loss. No one will ever know the meaning of what was shared, the deepness of the void that shadows your future. You alone know your loss. Only you can fully appreciate the depth of the physical relationship that has ended.
We all play many roles in our lives: spouse, parent, child, family member, friend. You knew your loved one in a way that no one else ever did or ever will. One person's dying touches many people in many different ways; everyone feels that loss individually. Your task in your own mourning and grieving is to fully recognize your own loss, to see it as only you can. In paying the respect and taking the time it deserves, you bring integrity to the deep loss that is yours.
For many, a strange and unexpected feeling sits amid the loss: a feeling of relief that contrasts with the pervading sadness. It feels out of place, out of step, and is often considered wrong. Why would you feel a sense of relief at the loss of someone so close and so dear?
If you feel relief, it may be because your loved one was suffering and you are grateful it has ended. Watching or even thinking about a loved one's suffering places a heavy pain on top of the sadness. Of course you wanted her to live long, fully, and well. But that was not an option.
It is her endless suffering you wanted to end, which is why you feel somewhat relieved that she is dead. Hence the confusion: the relief and sadness mix together in a situation that has no resolve. When this occurs, your relief is the recognition that the suffering has ended, the pain is over, the disease no longer lives. Your loved one no longer has that illness, that disease. It has stopped causing her pain.
Your relief may be in proportion to the amount and length of suffering. For example, when President Ronald Reagan died from Alzheimers disease, he had been suffering for close to a decade. Nancy, his wife, was deeply saddened and allowed her loss to be viewed by the world. Many people, including some family members, talked about the relief they felt now that his suffering was over. He had seen so many years of pain with no quality of life, and all they could do was watch him decline. At the end of that, anyone would be relieved.
For those who did not experience a long, drawn-out death, however, the task of separating the relief from the loss becomes even more difficult There is the relief of knowing your loved one is no longer suffering. There is the reality that neither are you. Suffering is a family affair, and everyone endures it together.
One day, John went into the hospital for a simple cardiac procedure. He and his wife, Amanda, were informed, just like everyone else, that something could go wrong. They accepted that, and he turned out to be the one in a thousand who suffered complications. Before Amanda knew what was going on, John was diagnosed with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), which is an inflammatory process that results in moderate to severe loss of lung function. She could not believe that this illness existed and that his body was suddenly overcome with respiratory failure and massive infection. The odds were so against this happening. He needed to be resuscitated not once but twice, his temperature reached 107 degrees, and a few days after the surgery he lay in the ICU with little brain function and even less hope for survival.
For the next ten days his wife watched his face covered in tape that held in tubes so that a machine could breathe for him. On the tenth day, he had his final cardiac arrest and did not survive. Amanda was stunned. Just two weeks prior, he had appeared and felt absolutely fine. But she also felt relief that he was not suffering after ten seemingly interminable days.