If you have ever known anyone who has suffered a long and painful terminal illness you may have experienced some relief after they have died. Finally their tortured body is at rest, their suffering has finally ceased.
If you have born witness to all the pain and suffering you may be struggling with a sense of relief with your grief. It can feel disloyal to feel anything but sorrow and yet, having watched the agony, especially if it was a long illness it can feel like a weight has been lifted. How do you reconcile the feelings of grief with feelings of relief?
First, know its totally normal to feel that way. You have also been suffering and with the end of their suffering yours, too, has been abated. Grief is messy and can come with a myriad of feelings including relief. You will likely be told platitudes that are meant to soothe like "At least they are no longer suffering", these can sting when you are thinking of how your own suffering has been lessened with the end of the life of someone you love. You may be experiencing something like survivor guilt, where you feel guilt to be the one who survived. Don't feel like you don't deserve to feel these things and if you need to talk to a professional counselor there is no shame.
If you were the caretaker of the dying individual than most of your days were taken up with the care of your loved one and being a caretaker is hard, really really hard. As a massage therapist, in my previous career, everyone wanted to one up my other clients as to who had the biggest knots or was the most stressed. The person who hands down was the tightest most stressed person I ever gave a massage to, was an elderly woman who had been the sole care giver to her husband who was in end stage Parkinson's disease. Her daughter had forced her out of the house for a massage, I couldn't make a dent. She was so worried that someone else wouldn't care for him right, she wouldn't leave his side. I only saw her once and I wondered how she was going to carry on after her husband died. Her whole life revolved around his care.
When death is sudden or illness is short, this experience of relief and therefore guilt isn't present, but when its so painful for such a long time, the end is welcomed by all to a degree. There is a difference, of course, when someone has had an illness for a long time and suddenly their condition worsens and they succumb. A long battle with constant debilitating pain and continuous loss of function is difficult for the caretaker. There is guilt for feeling like you, too, are suffering while watching your loved one suffer.
Relief within the context of grief can feel like a betrayal, to yourself and to your loved one. Grief is frequently referred to as a rollercoaster in the dark, this feeling is the same, some terrible turn you were not prepared for. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel, its okay to feel relief and sorrow.
Have you ever felt relief after loss?
You may have heard this term 'good death' get thrown around by people in the death and dying industry. You may be wondering what that means, all deaths are the end of a life, how could that ever be 'good'?
The answer is both obvious and not. A good death refers to when someone is fully prepared to die and their vigil is beautiful and healing for the surviving family.
I have known personally people who have had the elusive good death, the young girl who I named this website for had one. She was prepared, her family who was fully involved in her care while also giving her the autonomy to control her care before her 18th birthday. When it was obviously the end, her doctor wanted to try increasingly aggressive treatments to save her. She was tired and she was ready to let go. Already with a breathing tube, she could not talk but was conscious while the doctor talked to her mother across the bed. She started using sign language to enact her living will. He ignored her gestures so she kicked him. It still makes me smile to think back to her dying and still willing to literally kick her way out. She was allowed to die on her terms, the mechanical support that was assisting her to breathe was turned off and she was released from her corporeal body. She had written a poem to be included with her memorial service meant to soothe her family and friends, although 25 years later it still reduces me to tears.
A mutual friend also had Cystic Fibrosis. He did not have a good death. His death is one of the reasons I do this. He had had a lung transplant and although he got a few more years than he would have, he developed cancer and then some neurological issues. Ultimately he developed an infection that was medication resistant and his blood pressure dropped below levels that he could receive dialysis. He died scared and one of his last sentences was "Dad, I don't want to die". At his funeral his father wept on my shoulder reliving his last conscious moments that his son was scared and there was nothing left to do but watch him die.
Through these two stories we can look at the idea of a good death. There was significant grief from the loss of both people who were taken when they were far too young. One in her teens, prepared for the end and ready to make the journey on and one in his twenties, terrified of what the end meant. These could be the result gender, religion or a myriad of other reasons but at the end of life it comes down to fear or acceptance. When you are facing death you are, of course, concerned about how the survivors will cope without you as well as with your loss. If you are a parent, you are thinking about how your children will cope with the loss of a parent and if you are young, how your parents will carry on after losing a child. As humans we are community oriented and we all have those people we worry how they will handle going on after a significant loss.
How can we achieve the 'good death'? What can we change about our lives that the end won't mean terror and instead we can bravely move on to whatever the next journey has in store for us and also ease the grief of those left behind? This isn't something I can answer for everyone, it will be about your religious beliefs and your family dynamic and a thousand other factors. However, normalizing death will be a big part of achieving it. In our modern culture we have sanitized death and removed it from our everyday lives. Our elders are not dying in their homes, our homes are no longer multi-generational and we don't see the natural progression of life to its end. Death is taboo although it happens to us all, most of us have never witnessed someone's last breaths. None of us get out of this alive and most of us are scared of what the end will hold.
Lets open up about death, our fears, our beliefs, and our experiences with grief and loss. Lets plan our deaths so we can examine our own fears. Write your vigil and your eulogy. If you have a plan for your vigil and your funeral you can make a plan about how you want to live your life more fully. If you can look back on your life and see you have accomplished the important things in life you can find peace with the end.
Making a plan for your death, unless you are actively dying, means you have the opportunity to reflect on your life and the chance to create the life you are proud of when the end comes. Having the life you are proud of will help you have that good death. Making a vigil plan or writing a eulogy will help you focus on your priorities and be sure to achieve the things that are most important to you.
The author is not getting compensated for the following post.
Who doesn't love cake!?
I see all manner of death related articles etc., but a website has recently caught my eye and I think it is worth doing a review of here.
What is Cake? It is a social site dedicated to getting you ready for the unexpected. Its totally free to set up your account and share with the person or people you want to know your wishes.
You create an account and answer some questions they call 'Cake Cards' and it walks you through things you probably never gave any thought to as well as plenty you probably have considered but didn't want to really think about.
Cake walks you through things like, would you want a tree planted in your memory and what would you like done with your body after you die. It also covers things like whether you want your browser history erased and what to do with your social media accounts.
Under all the questions you have the option to create a note to clarify what you mean. For instance, yes I want a tree planted in my name, and in the note say the kind of tree.
I have filled out my own Cake account and given the password to my husband. Cake recommends creating a medical proxy and I have not done that, mostly because it requires 2 witnesses and who thinks about getting witnesses for a medical proxy when you are healthy? In the state of Virginia, where I live, my spouse is the default person to make decisions on my behalf if I am unable. Since he would be the one I would declare as my proxy it is redundant to create a new legal document. If you are single, however, this maybe something you want to do if, for example, you wouldn't want your parents or next of kin to make those decisions. Were you in an accident or had a catastrophic medical event and could not make your own decisions be sure the person who is making them is who you want and trust.
In the top right corner there is a 'Marketplace' link, this will bring you to a list of companies that provide everything from life insurance to eldercare. Perhaps the most important for the middle aged users are the password manager options. Once you have made the decisions about what will be done with your social media accounts and financial accounts someone will need those passwords to take care of them as needed.
Once you have answered your cake cards you simple share your login information with 1 or more people who you want to know your wishes and trust to take care of you in the event of your death.
Visit joincake.com to get started.
Tell me what you think about the cake cards.
What is ritual?
The dictionary defines a ritual as: "a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order."
However, we live in an increasingly secular world. That doesn't mean there isn't room for religious rites and rituals, but, that we expand our definition of ritual to encompass more secular traditions.
A ritual does not have to be complicated or solemn. In fact, ritual in the context of grief, in my opinion, should have a least some element of joy. You are, after all, celebrating a life lived and loved. Solemnity certainly has its place, but if you choose to create a rite that means your family will laugh through their tears it can help heal their hearts in another way.
During a vigil plan I help create a variety of rituals as well as the actual vigil. These rituals tend to be simple and very emotionally loaded with a heavy dose of symbolism. For example, a large pillar candle is lit at the beginning of active dying and after the last breath those who have sat vigil light smaller candles from the original flame and the pillar candle's flame is extinguished. The action is simple and the symbolism obvious, although the dying person's light can no longer be seen where it was, it exists still spread out among those who loved them. This short ritual is very powerful and can be as religious or not as you want. For those who practice religion they are showing the divine's presence, for those who are secular it is a representation of the spreading of energy. The lighting of candles is often integrated into religious rites, but can also just be lighting a candle.
In the candle you have a sense of solemnity but how do you integrate joy into something so sad? Did you ever watch the movie 'Raising Helen' with Kate Hudson? Kate's character inherits her sister's children after she was tragically killed in a traffic accident. Kate's character is apprehensive about taking the children until she reads a letter from her sister included with the will. The content of the letter is the lyrics of 'Whip It' by Devo. It was their inside joke. Do you have some silly quirk? Something that is so clearly your signature that your loved ones will groan and roll their eyes even at your death? When creating the rituals for your vigil make them as personal as possible. Make them so very YOU that those mourning you will feel your presence even as you slip away.
I also advocate creating a ritual for the anniversary of your death. Your family and loved ones will have navigated an entire year without you. A whole year of trying to figure out who trims the tree or carves the turkey or whatever your role is in whatever holidays you celebrate. If you spend Thanksgiving yelling at the football game while your family prepares dinner, the quiet will be felt in a visceral way. Even when your partner scowls at you for not helping set the table they will only feel a hole in the lack of scorn for your preoccupation with football. Your loved ones would rather be annoyed for that thing you do every year than have to endure without you. The anniversary of their loss should be memorialized. If you create a small ritual, this one can be more complex since they have time to plan it, they can acknowledge their grief and loss and have a piece of you back. You love chocolate cake but everyone else wants yellow cake? On this anniversary they will eat the chocolate gladly. Maybe the candle that was extinguished at your last breath is displayed and lit again for an hour to symbolically have you whole. Your family can talk about what has happened 'telling you' about their lives since your death.
These rituals are about your family coping with their loss, having a prescribed series of actions to help them wade through the grief. We live in a society that expects you to recover and move through your life again seemingly moments after the funeral. We need to acknowledge that the survivors are every day trying to navigate a 'new normal'. Your loss, to them, changes how they do everything. By giving them structured moments to grieve without the pressure of society telling them their mourning should be over by now, they can begin to heal.
If it seems these rituals are done not for you, you are right. The vigil plan is for you. The rituals are for your family. All of it though, gives you a sense of peace, peace knowing your family will be okay, and peace knowing that although it will be the end it will be beautiful and still so you.
What quirk would you want your family to integrate into a ritual?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.