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.