When Someone You Love Dies . . .
Ricky and MaryAnne had been happily married for 18 years and had one child. But for about a year Ricky had been having pain in his shoulder. By the summer of 1981, it had intensified and he was slowly becoming paralyzed. Emergency surgery revealed a cancerous tumor high up on his spine. Several months later, on February 2, 1982, Ricky died at the age of 48. “It was hard to accept,” explains MaryAnne. “For a long time it was like he was still going to walk in the door.”
HAVE you, or someone you know, had a similar experience? When someone you love dies, feelings and attitudes may surface that you’ve never before experienced. Perhaps you wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again. Or, like MaryAnne, you have difficulty accepting it, although some time has gone by.
Nevertheless, you can recover—not forget, but recover. ‘But how?’ you ask. Well, before we can answer that, it’s helpful to know more about how it feels when a loved one dies. Recently Awake! interviewed a number of persons who had lost a loved one in death. Their comments appear in this series of articles. It can be reassuring to know that others have felt as you may feel. And understanding how they have dealt with their feelings may be of great help to you.
Recalls MaryAnne in explaining how she felt just after Ricky died: “I would talk about him incessantly. It was a way of keeping him alive. For the first year I was in a state of shock. There are so many things that you have to do to get your affairs in order. You get so involved with those things that you don’t have time to deal with the emotional part of it.
“I ended up in the hospital with high blood pressure. Finally, while I was in the hospital, away from the pressure of home and everything else, then I was able to face what had happened to me. It was like, ‘Where do I go from here?’”
An unusual reaction? Not really. When first learning that a loved one has died, it’s rather common to go into psychological shock. As others who have experienced it say: “You hear what’s said to you and yet you don’t hear everything. Your mind is partially focused in present reality and partially not.”
This shock may act almost like an anesthetic. How so? Explains the book Death and Grief in the Family: “It’s a kind of protection that allows the enormity of what’s happened to sink in gradually.” Such shock may help cushion you against the full emotional impact of your loss. As Stella, a widow in New York City, explained: “You’re stunned. You don’t feel anything.”
“There Must Be Some Mistake!”
Along with this initial numbness, it’s not uncommon to go through various forms of denial. “There must be some mistake!” can often be heard during the early hours of grief. For some the loss is difficult to accept, particularly if they weren’t with their loved one when he or she died. Recalls Stella: “I didn’t see my husband die; it happened in the hospital. So it was hard to believe that he was dead. He went out to the store that day, and it was as if he would be coming back.”
You know your loved one has died, yet your habits and memories may deny it. For example, explains Lynn Caine in her book Widow: “When something funny happened, I’d say to myself, ‘Oh, wait until I tell Martin about this tonight! He’ll never believe it.’ There were times in my office when I would stretch out my hand to the telephone to call him, to chat. Reality always intervened before I dialed.”
Others have done similar things, such as consistently setting the wrong number of plates for dinner or reaching for the departed one’s favorite foods in the supermarket. Some even have vivid dreams of the deceased or imagine seeing him on the street. It’s not uncommon for survivors to fear that they’re going out of their mind. But these are common reactions to such a drastic change in one’s life.
Eventually, though, the pain cuts through, perhaps bringing with it other feelings that you weren’t prepared to deal with.
“He Left Us!”
“My kids would get upset and say, ‘He left us!’” explained Corrine, whose husband died about two years ago. “I’d tell them, ‘He didn’t leave you. He didn’t have any control over what happened to him.’ But then I’d think to myself, ‘Here I am telling them that, and I’m feeling the same way!’” Yes, surprising as it may seem, anger quite often accompanies grief.
It may be anger at doctors and nurses, feeling that they should have done more in caring for the deceased. Or anger at friends and relatives who, it seems, say or do the wrong thing. Some get angry at the departed one for neglecting his health. As Stella recalls: “I remember being angry with my husband because I knew it could have been different. He had been very sick, but he had ignored the doctors’ warnings.”
And sometimes there’s anger at the departed one because of the burdens that his or her death brings upon the survivor. Explains Corrine: “I’m not used to handling all the responsibilities of caring for the house and the family. You can’t call on others for every little thing. Sometimes I get angry about that.”
On the heels of anger often comes another feeling—guilt.
“He Wouldn’t Have Died if Only I Had . . .”
Some feel guilty because of anger—that is, they may condemn themselves because they feel angry. Others blame themselves for their loved one’s dying. “He wouldn’t have died,” they convince themselves, “if only I had made him go to the doctor sooner” or “made him see another doctor” or “made him take better care of his health.”
For others the guilt goes beyond that, especially if their loved one died suddenly, unexpectedly. They start recalling the times they got angry at or argued with the departed one. Or they may feel that they really were not all that they should have been to the deceased. They are tormented by thoughts such as, ‘I should have—or shouldn’t have—done this or that.’
Mike, a young man in his early 20’s, recalls: “I never had a good relationship with my father. It was only in recent years that I really even started talking to him. Now [since his father died] there are so many things I feel I should have done or said.” Of course, the fact that now there’s no way to make it up may only add to the frustration and guilt.
As difficult as it is to lose a spouse, a parent, a brother, or a sister in death, what some consider to be the most tragic loss of all is the death of a child.
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Common Grief Reactionsa
Shock—(“I don’t feel anything”)
Denial—(“There must be some mistake!”)
Anger—(“How could he leave me like this?”)
Guilt—(“He wouldn’t have died if only I had . . .”)
Anxiety—(“What will become of me now?”)
Fear of insanity—(“I think I’m losing my mind”)
a This is not to suggest that there necessarily are stages of grief, with one following the other in orderly progression. People are individuals. Thus grief reactions may vary greatly in intensity and duration.
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“Dead? I can’t believe it!”
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Many survivors go through feelings of guilt: “If only I had . . .”