Again, in circumstances of the tragic loss of life and of young lives, this is a very different situation. When someone is old and sick and dies, it is not easy, but more acceptable to be OK with moving on. We all know the first year to 13 months is the most critical for the living. It is all about getting through the first birthday and holidays and seasons without the person. The second anniversaries are a little less painful, but will always retain some semblance of sadness and even regrets and frustrations.
For those caregivers who devoted their lives to the one who died, the suddenness of not having those same obligations and restrictions on their life will be shocking. One day things are as they progressively became and the next, none of that is needed any more. Care givers need the opportunity to decompress and reprogram their lives and energy and reclaim themselves. After months and years of watching and tending to someone who gradually dies before you, it would not be normal to not feel some sense of loss and abandonment and need for structure again.
A year after Fred died, we were still thinking we could hear him or caught ourselves getting ready to ask about him or to run check on him. This is fading over time and as my parents have now been able to go and do things freely they could not before, it has given them their lives back. Caring for him sure took a lot out of them, but now that he is gone, they have no regrets for doing the right thing in the right way. But, make no mistake about it they are relieved to no longer have that burden on them at their ages – and rightfully so.
For my mother-in-law, her resetting will take more time. She has cared for her husband for almost two decades and watched the slow decline and increased isolation that came with my father-in-law’s very steady yet gradual failing. Only when certain he was OK with me being there would she leave the house and take some time for herself. She, too, needs a life and deserves the joy of retirement and being a grandmother and still being a vibrant, engaging woman. This is what we will work to ensure she finds again and on her terms for her new life.
Having a conversation about what happens in they dying process (when it is slow and not under sudden circumstances), or talking about end of life wishes is near about impossible to have with many people. We just don’t like to think about these things and we become uncomfortable with the topic. However, since we will all be there at some point, it is useless to not discuss. In fact, it is selfish to not be prepared. You only leave heart-wrenching decisions to those you love and they will forever second-guess their decisions.
When the light finally does flicker off and the person has died, it may be a shock and seem completely unreal. This is especially true for those who have witnessed a very long and slow dying process. It is amazing how suddenly you realize that you can no longer ask them a question or share a joke or sit with them. This is rather startling for quite a while.
Though prepared, when death comes, it is still a surprise and unreal moment for the living. When someone is old and sick it is a bit more acceptable and a bit easier to process. When it is someone young and sudden and tragic, there is no acceptance and the process must be grueling for the families and friends. Grief is grief no matter how you measure it or what you call it. Pain is pain and we all experience it differently.
Much like “the long good-bye” common among Alzheimer’s patients, the dying process for some is a long good-bye as well. It may be more of a physical loss and physical strain than a mental or emotional loss. It is still a process and it is still difficult. Speaking only for the living and not the dying, seeing someone gradually fade away and waste away and revert back to infantile needs is nothing short of humbling.
So when the time comes and the person dies, it is a shock. After years of gradual failings and years of perking back up time and time again, it is unreal to realize that the time has finally come and the person is actually gone. They are dead. Never to talk or walk or love again as we once knew it and them.
We like to think we are good with this and intellectually we probably are. The reality is that most people are incredibly uncomfortable talking about death and dying and will use euphemisms to describe it if the topic is addressed at all. Many prefer to say things like: “he passed” or “she as crossed over” or “she is better now” or “he is finally at peace”. Though they may seem comforting and more kind, the cruel reality is none of this helps those who witnessed the slow decline and love the person through it.