Dealing With Death, Part One
I have discovered that not only is everyone’s grief different, but each experience of grief may also be different for the same person. That is, in the same way that who and how we love differs (e.g., parents, siblings, spouses, pets, activities, God), our grief changes with circumstance.
When I lost my adult son to brain cancer, it was radically different from when my husband had died six years earlier. Condolences and expressions of sympathy from those around me were essentially the same. But everything else was different; I was different.
My husband, Jim, and I had just celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary. Later that year, he began to falter, becoming physically feeble. For a month or so, minor ailments hospitalized him for a few days at a time. Finally, the doctor suggested home hospice. We knew that meant his time was short. In fact, it was one peaceful, serene month followed by two weeks of steady degeneration, and then two days of hallucination, terror, and restless – but final – sleep. My adult son, Luke, spent those final two days close by, relieving me of the burden of constantly watching Jim who kept wildly insisting that he had to stand up or walk (despite our knowing that he would only fall to the floor in a heap). We rented a hospital bed so he could be kept safely inside the confines of the metal railings. We dealt sternly but gently with Jim’s flailing, his pleading to be allowed to get up, and his refusal to relax, to rest.
And when he was exhausted and asleep, he slipped quietly into death. Luke and I cried, but not at the same time. We decided to be strong for each other: we would take turns sobbing for our loss, one comforting the other. We could do this, be strong, have dignity.
And when I reflect on that experience, I think it was then that the two of us – mother and son – made separate, silent decisions. Mine was to focus all my resources to the benefit of my son, my only child. His was to assure me that I would not be alone, would not feel forgotten or abandoned. This unspoken/unacknowledged arrangement lasted for six years. Then, my son (who had celebrated his 43rd birthday barely two weeks earlier) died after a month-long stay in the hospital. I am not strong; there is no dignity in losing your only child, no matter his age.
In these three years after Luke’s death I have come to understand a good deal about grief and loss, surely more than I ever wanted to. I have learned that losing a child is far worse than losing a spouse or even a parent because we do not expect to outlive our children. I have learned that losing one’s only child is worse than losing one of your children. I envy those who celebrate their children and grandchildren. I envy those who rest easy, knowing their offspring carry on in their name. I am here, near the end of my life, and ahead I see only emptiness. There is no promise, no purpose, no moving forward. There is only grief.