“Well Sheila, at least you got to say goodbye.”
“I’m sorry, what did you just say?”
Do me a favor and someone please add that to the, “what NOT to say to someone who has lost a loved one” list! Truth be told, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be on the cover of Forbes!
That age-old debate over what’s worse – dying the slow death or the sudden one. It’s an argument likely to continue until the last one standing leaves this earth. We, as a society discuss it endlessly saying things like, “I just want to go quickly and not know when it’s coming”, or “I want to be able to make peace and say goodbye on my own terms”. Everyone has their own opinion as to how they want to “go” and their own reasons why.
But for someone like me who had a spouse who died after a long illness, the “at least” part hits hard – as if my loss was somehow easier than someone who lost suddenly. Yes, I did get to say goodbye and so did my kids, my family and my friends. Yes, we knew it was coming and prepared for it. I wrote his eulogy over and over in my head and, for years, wondered how I’d raise my kids without him. Hell, I even visited the funeral home to pick out his casket and Mass cards the week before he died so that when it actually happened, I wouldn’t have to make those decisions. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? But for me, living life while “knowing” was extremely difficult, and I found myself many times longing to be one of the ones who never saw it coming.
Don’t get me wrong – never seeing it coming has its own set of problems. Here you were going about your normal routine when suddenly the floor drops out. No warning, no prepping, no nothing – just gone. Shock sets in, wears off, then grief begins. There are often so many “what if’s” and “should have’s”. Lots of words left unspoken and every-day occurrences left unappreciated. Moments taken for granted and lots of hope for the future… a future I already knew I wouldn’t have. For those who don’t get the chance to say goodbye, your pain is so raw, new and unexpected, that it is often seen as more painful than those who have known in advance. You had plans. You lived your life as though you would be together forever. You planned, saved, dreamed, and lived a life free from terminal illnesses, treatments, addictions and despair. You had the world in the palm of your hands until the universe said otherwise. Now you are left to pick up the pieces of your broken heart and your broken life. And I’m sure somewhere along the line, you’ve heard, “Well, at least he didn’t suffer”, right?
At the end of the day, we all know there is no “winning” when it comes to loss and there should be no debate over which way is easier or better. The bottom line is that it sucks no matter which way you look at it, and that both sides have very valid arguments as to why. I can tell you that losing someone slowly over time means you start grieving somewhere along the way. That every single day is spent living with the illness, physical or mental, and that illness takes priority over everything else. You’re no longer the person, the spouse, the family that you were before. Every single decision about every single part of your life revolves around the diagnosis, whether it’s spoken or not. Oh sure, you may talk about plans for the future, saving for family vacations, 5-year, 10-year goals, retirement, and hope that somehow things will turn around, but that little voice in your head is always there to remind you that it very well may not play out that way. Life is lived one long day at a time, or at best, in between scans and tests or maybe in between rehabs and treatments. That’s the reality – plain and simple. You quietly grieve while trying to live some sort of normal life under abnormal circumstances. Over the course of time you accept that death will come, and when it does, you seem, (at least to those looking in) better equipped to handle it.
There are a million articles out there written about what not to say to grieving people, but I’m really starting to believe the only people who read them are the ones who don’t need the advice! We’ve been there, done that, and could very well author our own book of No No’s.
So, what did I really say to the woman who tried to make me feel better by reminding me that “at least” I got to say goodbye? Nothing. I just gave her a little smirk, took a deep breath and excused myself. She wouldn’t understand and that’s okay. Maybe next time I’ll smirk, take a deep breath and say, “You know, you really should read this great piece right here!”