As the world mourns the death of Robin Williams, my thoughts turned to the anguish that his family and friends must be experiencing.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) in her book On Death and Dying. This has been widely accepted as useful in helping people who have terminal illness and for anyone suffering a loss. It strikes me, though, that there are a couple of key ingredients missing in this model. People who have been very close to a deceased person are just as likely to talk about feeling relief or guilt. Sometimes both.
A couple of weeks ago I met an elderly woman at the Restore and she was trying to buy items to repair something in her house. When we chatted, she explained that her husband had died suddenly and her primary emotion was anger. She was mad at him for dying. He left her not knowing how to manage money, not knowing how to fix the house, not knowing how to live alone, and not having the future they had planned. She also felt guilty for feeling angry.
This week I corresponded with a friend whose father had recently died. She told me that she cried during the funeral not because she was sorry he had died but because the pictures shown had been taken decades ago. Her primary memories were not of his glory days but of the misery he caused the family in various ways, especially during his lengthy illness. She, too, felt guilty for feeling angry, and was confused because she felt relieved that the dying had finally ended.
After my husband died, at first I simply felt relief. I remember going out to the car in the parking lot of the hospice and saying gratefully, “It’s over.” After that, I was just mad at him. I stayed angry for a very long time. I’m over it now, but it was surprising and confusing to feel that way. I didn’t think I was that kind of person. I resented the long years of his cancer treatments and slow dying. His character changed during those years and I missed the man he used to be. I resented having to be primary caregiver and working outside the home at the same time. As much as I wanted to be the loving and patient wife I imagined I could be, I just wasn’t. Mostly I was just exhausted and lonely as he withdrew into himself and became quietly bitter about having to be cared for.
Grief is a very complicated set of emotions. Movies and fictional television shows often get it wrong. They show people becoming more understanding, more empathetic, more able to forgive, more likely to talk about deep issues, and more likely to mend broken relationships. While that may happen sometimes, my guess is that those are the exceptions.
Whether a person dies suddenly or slowly, the experience is never one that we anticipate. We don’t know how to be suddenly single after being married for decades. We don’t know how to be a caregiver until we are thrust into the role. Living with a dying spouse or parent also means living in a dying relationship and the dual loss is bewildering, frustrating, undeserved, and infuriating. And, very often we don’t know how talk about our emotions with someone whose own circumstances are dire.
Somehow, we are able to develop new skills, take on new roles, and face down those negative feelings. We can eventually focus on the good memories and the joyful times we had. First, though, we have to live through the worst of our natures. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t suitable for prime time.
It’s so amazing the emotions that come with loss. I felt a lot of anger after my dad passed. It still comes up from time to time but I’ve learned to deal with it and channel it in different ways. I thought of RW’s family after I heard of his passing….. I wondered if they quietly felt angry with the public’s outpouring of support… like if only they knew. I mean, RW was in recovery from addiction, highly depressed and had to hold up to the world this image he had created. What did his family experience through this all? It’s terrible. It’s sad. Our experiences just can’t be recreated in tidy memes and quotes. Our grief can really shape us… can’t it?
I had the same thoughts about Robin Williams’ family, Jordan. I don’t think life with him was joyful all the time. I’m glad that you are finding ways to live with your grief. It can shape us, show us a different side to our nature, and help us to change.
I enjoyed and appreciated reading this. Thank you.
Two thoughts linger with me: 1) All emotions are complicated. Yet they are invaluable when we embrace and learn from them. 2) “It isn’t pretty.” Why wouldn’t this be the perfect (and right) time to be with and share them? Especially in prime time!
I’m glad you appreciated this, Eric.
If I understand your second thought correctly, I found that it was not possible for me to share my emotions with my husband for a number of reasons. First of all, he was expected to die within a year of his diagnosis, and I thought I would just keep my thoughts to myself. It seemed selfish to burden him with my troubles when his were so much worse. We continued to think his death was imminent even though he lived for another seven years. So, the postponement of much of those thoughts just continued.
My reference to prime time was with regard to what is appropriate for family viewing on television, but I suppose it could also refer to the prime of one’s life. If we are talking about prime time television, my experience has been that the networks keep the darker sides of our natures for adult viewing only. Even then, they sentimentalize death and dying which I think is unfortunate. So, I would agree with you that a space could be usefully opened up for these discussions on television, but I don’t know how popular it would be.