Death releases a mix of emotions
Losing a loved one — parent, partner, dear friend — is an experience often filled with profound grief. But other emotions, like relief, are commonly part of our feelings. It seems cold-hearted to say “I was so relieved when Aunt Betty died,” but that may be truthful.
Relief is understood when the abusive parent or violent ex-spouse dies. The feelings may be flat, or mixed, or grief about the entire experience, not about the death itself. But people may feel relieved when they have profoundly loved the dying person.
Or they may feel something else entirely.
I remember when I called a chaplain into my office to ask about the widow of a recently deceased person in our hospital unit. I had asked her to visit the widow and see if she needed anything.
The chaplain was fighting a smile at the corners of her mouth. “Well, the widow asked me if I had ever used Match.com, so I think she has moved on.”
When my unmarried aunt moved to our city in her elderly years so that her nieces, my sister and I, could take care of her, I was unhappy. I had spent time with her and knew how she thought, how she had very clear-cut ideas about family responsibility. We were the daughters of her deceased sister, so it was our job to care for her.
We established boundaries early on, and her senior living home provided many of the services she thought we could do. My sister and I each had full-time careers, and I had two teens demanding my attention. My aunt was an eccentric, complicated person, and we accepted our family obligation reluctantly.
When she died, her written instructions stipulated that she would like people to gather all day for an old-fashioned hymn sing, and she left the names of 26 hymns she would like played. She asked us to sing all verses.
We chose three hymns, the first and last verses, and held a small service at her nursing home’s chapel. Many of her family and friends had predeceased her.
The relief, to me, was the sense of fulfilling this responsibility and having the freedom to move on, if I wanted. Also, my teens were graduating high school, and many commitments were changing.
When my father died, I told someone I was relieved, and she looked shocked. He was a warm and kind man. I loved him and felt filled with grief, but he was also from the older generation that had a strict observance of propriety. As a preacher’s kid, I had learned to sneak around rules about movies and curfews, and dancing. As an adult, there were experiences I never discussed or disclosed.
After he died, I felt freer to create vibrant, sensual art and develop relationships that fulfilled all parts of me. I felt free of the self-imposed constraints of living up to someone else’s standards, even though I hadn’t realized what I was doing. It’s not that I had limited my life choices, but now I felt free from any restrictions or disagreements about them.
I was deeply sad. I was also relieved and felt guilty.
My living-apart-together partner dropped dead of a heart attack.
I was shocked but not surprised. He had told me I might be the first to notice changes, and some months before he died I told him I was concerned about lapses I had observed.
He had driven to my house a hundred times but recently got lost driving there. The last time we went out to dinner, he needed to stop and catch his breath on the walk across a full parking lot. He declined my insistent offer to go with him to a doctor’s appointment, to be a listener.
I had talked to some of his family, with his permission, concerned about the health changes I had noticed. He was so stubborn and so independent, that I didn’t know how he would manage any help or restrictions.
I was also relieved he would not have a lingering, drawn-out decline. He would have fought against any limitations. He left easily and quickly.
We all know relationships are complicated, and feeling one emotion doesn’t deny the other emotions we are feeling simultaneously.
Deaths during Covid have brought up compounded mixed feelings — we couldn’t be there, so we attended a memorial service over Zoom, detached from hugs and tears. Well-known persons, whether local or national, would have had a more robust memorial during times we could gather together in person, and honor the contributions of that life.
All Saints Day in Christian churches provides an annual opportunity for remembrance. I do like the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and other countries that recall loved ones with anecdotes and laughter and parties and decoration. It is that spirit that is also appropriate; not merely grief, but a celebration of the ongoing relationships we have with our departed ones.
I still hear my mother’s voice, and what she would say in certain situations (whether I follow it or not!). I still have vivid dreams of my partner. I see the family resemblance carrying on in my granddaughter, the “dominant” genes of the Johnson line.
It helps to feel like those we love are just on the other side, and we can still talk with them, in our hearts or out loud.
Growing older is filled with lots of satisfaction, but loss becomes a companion, too. As friends lose capacities, we lose a little bit of that relationship. It may change, and change includes losses.
We can celebrate what we have now, as now continues to evolve.