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Grief and relief: the mix of emotions after a death

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

When a family member has witnessed a long, slow decline in a spouse or elder prior to the elder's death, the death often brings mixed emotions. While grief is expected, relief that ordeal is over often is a surprise. This feeling of relief is something many people are afraid to make known to others, as they feel guilty having such feelings.

Dealing with the Slow Decline

Out of the seven elders I cared for over the span of two decades, four would qualify as having had long, slow deaths. Actually, the only surprise illness and death was my aunt. She had been seemingly healthy all of her life until she collapsed outside the hospital she was about to enter so she could visit her husband. She soon underwent exploratory surgery. The doctors discovered that nearly every organ in her body was cancerous. Hastened by the surgery, her death occurred in little over a week.

My neighbor, Joe, who I cared for, broke his hip and died weeks later, so his death was fairly sudden, and my father-in-law, though he slowly declined, was able to remain at home and only required intermittent care during his last months. While he was aware and ready to die, the process was not drawn out.

The other four, however, were agonizingly slow. My uncle had repeated massive strokes, each leaving him more disabled than before. My mother-in-law had dementia and her last two years were made even more miserable after pulling out of pneumonia that in times of lesser medical intervention would have killed her.

My mother and father both had different types of dementia and extreme pain which stretched over many years. For all four of these people, their last years were very hard and their deaths brought mixed emotions.

The Long Goodbye

Alzheimer's disease is often called "the long goodbye." In many ways, that is a fitting term, but it doesn't only belong to Alzheimer's. The same holds true with other types of dementia, most of which take their victims one brain cell at time. Some people, like my dad, are thrown into dementia in the blink of an eye, only to live in mental limbo for years. Dad's demented life was to last a decade. It's impossible to describe the agony of watching my beloved father trapped in this demented body for that length of time.

For all of the elders, I did my best to give them a purpose and to make their last years as pleasant as they could be. However, as dementia took them over, inch by inch, the suffering was agony for them as well as for their family. As each slipped away from a painful, demented body, we grieved. But for those of us who were closest to them during the last years of their lives, there was also relief. The suffering was over.

It's Okay to Feel Relief

I often speak of these deaths before groups of caregivers and professionals. There are generally boxes of tissues about, as most of my topics are emotional. When I say that I would guess many of them have felt a sense of relief when a loved one dies, heads nod. Tears flow. But after hearing the words spoken aloud by another person, they somehow know it's okay. They are not alone in feeling relief when it's over and that is healing.

It's gratifying to see this reaction. At first I was baffled that people were so ashamed to admit that though they grieved, they could also feel relief. I learned, later, how common that is. I tell them it doesn't make them bad people. Who could enjoy watching this suffering? Who could, day after day, totally enjoy the turmoil and exhaustion these years of caregiving bring?

Most of us never regret giving our time and attention to those we love. Our elders who have long, slow deaths deserve the best care we can give them through every moment of the journey. But when their journey ends, and the sorrow of loss is examined, there is often a mew understanding that the loss began to happen long ago. This final step was just that--the final step of the journey.

The end of a long, tiring journey must have some reward. In this case it's the end of suffering. It's also the beginning of a different kind of life for the caregiver. Feeling relief over that is natural, normal and compassionate. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Please drop the guilt and accept your humanity.

You are a good person.