The more I research, dig into, and live through the loss of family members, the more I learn about the dark side of grief. The dark side of grief is the thoughts, emotions and feelings that are left unsaid and unspoken for fear of judgement, guilt, and shame – relief that your loved one is gone.
My father passed away in 1999 from colon cancer. It was diagnosed in 1998. It took several months to determine his treatment plan due to some complications from other medical issues. He underwent chemotherapy which did not stop the spread of the cancer. It spread to and metastasized to his spine which required radiation therapy. Six months after his treatment started, Dad was weak, sick, and suffering tremendously. He opted out of completing his radiation therapy for a shorter albeit better and less painful life. Knowing that his life would end soon, he wanted to enjoy what time he had remaining doing what he loved and spending it with those whom he loved. Within a matter of days of arresting his radiation, he was walking around and back in his garden with the neighborhood fox. Although it was difficult to understand that he no longer wanted to fight, I respected his decision. I followed his lead and spent as much time as I could with him.
His back hurt and he was taking heavy pain killers. I knew he was suffering immensely. He wouldn’t admit it though. It broke my heart to see him in so much pain. My mom was hurting as she watched her husband of 44 years wither away from the strong active and intelligent man he once was. It pained me to see her pain. Dad’s cancer treatment and his slow and painful death was hard on the entire family, Mom, my sister, my brother, and myself. Dad’s last week was spent in a hospital bed set up in his and moms’ bedroom, hooked up to an IV of morphine. At first, he was able to push the button to get an extra dose to ease the pain. Eventually, when Dad could no longer administer his own morphine, it was put on a schedule.
I no longer recognized Dad. His eyes were sunken, he was pale, his breathing was labored, could not talk and was unable to move. He was no longer the man I knew. When dad was knocking on death’s door, he was transferred to a nursing home so he could be made comfortable in his dying moments. He was surrounded by his family: mom, my brother and sister, myself, my ex-husband and my three children. As he took his last breath, he was able to look around and see that his family was with him. He went knowing that his family loved him.
However, all the love in the world did not take away his and the family’s pain and suffering. We spent countless hours tending to his needs. We did it without objection and with love. When it was finally over, I had a mix of emotions that I did not expect. I was sad yet relieved. Dad was no longer in agony. He was out of misery. I was also out of anguish as a bystander in his journey. I was ready to resume my life.
As I processed my loss, and grief, I did not share with anyone that I felt relieved he was gone. It was my deep, dark secret. It was a taboo thought. I sensed shame that I experienced relief. I felt if I said it out loud, I would be judged for feeling relieved. I never wanted him to die. The struggle was real as I watched him suffer. My life was put on hold to be with him. I am glad I did it. We had quality time together and I supported Mom as well. It was hard, probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever done – watching my dad die.
I also felt guilty for having the emotion of relief. It didn’t make sense. I expected myself to only feel sadness, loss, and grief. I have since learned that we can, and do, experience mixed emotions around loss.
My sister went through a similar experience with her cancer treatment. I saw her shrink to a shell of herself. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, we talked a lot about how dad passed away. She told me she didn’t want to put anyone through what we went through with him. She didn’t want to end her life with a long and painful attempt to prolong it. When she passed away, I knew this was what she wanted, and I felt relieved for her and myself.
My sister and Dad went through hell, and they took me with them. It was important that I released any guilt or shame for being grateful that this part of my life was over. It was okay to accept that I felt relieved. There – I said it.
Relief after death. For many, this may seem taboo to express and feel it. However, in the end, I never wished for my loved one’s death. I gave them everything I had.
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