Waiting for the inevitable: Grieving before and after a loved one dies

A post for those who have watched and waited, as they knew their loved one’s death was coming soon.

There could be many reasons why you’ve been living on the edge of your seat, awaiting the inevitable, and it may be no surprise when it finally happens.

Every birthday celebration with your elderly parent or grandparent was a pleasant surprise; eventually, there could be no more. Even while they were here in body, if they suffered from dementia it might have felt as though they were already part gone.

Or perhaps it was somebody younger. You may have been caring for a child, born disabled, not expected to reach adulthood, or maybe your partner was diagnosed with terminal cancer or another disease which was guaranteed to cut his or her life short.

Perhaps you cared for your loved one at home for as long as you could, but as their condition deteriorated, they were hospitalised or taken into a nursing home.

Whatever the causes, and no matter how diligent your care, you understood there would be little chance of changing the final outcome. You dreaded losing your loved one, sometimes pretending to yourself it wouldn’t happen, but in your heart you knew it was inescapable. You grieved in anticipation of the pain of loss, trying to imagine what life would be like without them.

And then finally they were gone.

Whether he or she slipped away quietly in their sleep, or their final hours were more intense, that moment arrived. Next came the funeral, a burial or cremation. Hopefully your friends and family have been there to support you, but even with their best intentions, eventually you find yourself alone with your thoughts. After all you have been through, the silence can feel somewhat of an anti-climax.

Every experience of bereavement is unique, and everyone grieves differently. Even our own feelings change as time goes by. Sadness and a sense of loss are what we expect to feel at the passing of a loved one, but grief is more complicated than that. Understanding that there are no right or wrong ways to grieve can be a help, as it frees us to deal with our reactions and find ways to go forwards.

Understanding the many layers of loss

Now that he or she is gone, you may be wondering what comes next. If you’re a person with religious faith, this may bring you comfort, but even so, you are still faced with continuing your life, here and now, without your loved one.

If you cared for your loved one at home, there will be quite a few practical arrangements to deal with. Social benefits will change; mobility equipment will need to be removed. You will need to decide what to do with your loved one’s clothes and personal effects, although hopefully you will not have to make hasty decisions about this.

Just as with any loss, it’s important to find someone to talk with, to reminisce about your loved one, to celebrate their life. In the early days of bereavement it is quite natural to focus on their illness, disability or last days. In time though, you will be able to treasure the good memories of the person.

As their carer, you may experience their loss on many levels. There’s an ache in your heart; you miss them. But there is another aspect. When you took care of them, it gave you a sense of purpose. Now they’re gone, you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself. You feel rather empty.

If you had been involved in the daily care of your loved one, particularly if you were their main carer, you might even look back wistfully at the times when you longed for respite, for a good night’s sleep, for a few days holiday. Now your time is your own once again, you wonder how you could have ever felt like that! What would you give to be transported back!

You will need to readjust to your new life circumstances, and this could take a while. It would be a good idea, eventually, to find ways to fill the time void and reduce your loneliness. Perhaps you’ll take up some new hobbies, volunteer with a charity or rediscover something you used to enjoy—whatever activity suits you best. But be patient with yourself, and wait until you feel ready to step out in this way.

Making the adjustment

If you had been anticipating a death over a long period, perhaps you thought you knew how you would feel when it actually happened. But nobody knows in advance.

The shock and feeling of disbelief that characterise the early days of bereavement quickly give way to more complex feelings. When someone has passed away after a long illness, it is not uncommon to feel relieved. This could be partly for their sake, knowing that their suffering is over, but you may also feel some relief for yourself. No matter much you loved them, their care might have overtaken your life and been exhausting physically and emotionally. Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the lightening of your load might be welcome; the trouble is, any feelings of relief may be accompanied by guilt.

It is important to realise that all of these feelings are quite natural. You did your best for your loved one while they were alive, and now you deserve to continue your life without the burden of self-condemnation. If you are struggling to sort out these mixed up emotions, you may find it helpful to express your feelings in a support group or talk with a counsellor.

Every bereavement is an adjustment. Take it a day at a time. We each have to find a way to go on living without our loved one, and that is not always a quick process. Be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, and accept support. Hopefully in time you will once more embrace the joy of living.


Read more: 

“I feel so alone in my grief.” – If this is you, read on…

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