It’s difficult to witness the physical and mental decline of a friend or loved one with a debilitating illness. In fact, it’s hard not to grieve while they are still alive, as responsibilities and relationships shift and lives change. Some might think that death would be a relief and grief shortened, but that’s not often the case.

My mother declined over a period of 18 months, and during that time, our roles steadily reversed. I loved her dearly, relying on her strength, and I grieved for her as she retreated from my life. Following surgery, she bravely and with great determination fought her way to recovery and amazingly flew by herself first west and then north for family visits. She died just three months after her visit with me.

The morning after her funeral, my first emotion was relief: I would no longer have to worry. No more frequent phone calls or arguments as I pleaded with her to forgo habits and activities that put her at risk. That relief quickly mushroomed into overwhelming grief, and it would take me time to learn how to live without her.

One friend had a different experience. She shadowed her parents during the year her father bravely fought cancer and again the following year when her mother’s cancer spread. By the second funeral,  she felt numb. Surely she grieved in those early days as she and her siblings settled the family estate, but she shared that she had done most of her grieving while her parents were still alive.

Another friend’s mother had dementia, and it robbed her of seven years of her life. Her mom’s decline was excruciating to watch. While driving her mom to the doctor one day, my friend’s mother asked, “Are you my mother or my daughter?” My friend lost control of the car and hit a parked car. After that incident, my friend prayed that her mom would pass away and find some peace. When the day finally came and her mother died, my friend was inconsolable. She grieved deeply for months until her own death.

Grief is such a personal experience. We all grieve differently based on our personalities, relationship with the deceased, life experiences, and probably a host of other factors. And we grieve in our own time. Just because we have a warning that a loved one will die doesn’t mean we are prepared for the loss. No matter the relationship or the age, few people are ready to say goodbye. Each of us needs the time, space, and extended support to heal and, hopefully, find peace. 

***

Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available as e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store.

Image via Magdalena Roeseler / photopin (license)

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