The Emotional Response to Navigating Loss and Grief; Theirs and Mine
I spoke to a group of hospice volunteers recently and one of them asked two very powerful questions, “do you ever become emotional when someone dies?” and “has any death affected you personally due to your own grief?” Great questions!!!
Whether I have only just met someone, or have spent several weeks/months with them, death elicits a response in me that has different levels of emotion, some of which I struggle to contain. Despite how long anyone has had to prepare themselves for the death of someone they love, when it finally happens, when those last breaths have been taken, the reality of it suddenly hits as though you had absolutely no idea, and that can be shocking and painful, both emotionally and physically. And my reaction to it never fails to kick me right in the gut, and sometimes… knocks the wind right out of me.
I cannot reason with why some make me cry and some don’t. There are not enough consistencies for me to be able to say why some I sob for, and others don’t draw even a single tear. I try very hard to keep it together, I certainly do not throw myself over the bed and cry hysterically (I do not recommend this) but sometimes, I just let the tears fall without worry that someone might see, because I am comfortable with them knowing that I feel their loss deeply.
I experience sympathy or anticipatory grief in these situations, a reaction to the ache and pain I witness. Sometimes, moments before the last breaths are about to be taken, and I know it is about to happen, I will look over to the person at the bedside and take their hand or wrap my arm around their shoulders as if prepared to catch them when they fall, because that is what it feels like for me. I anticipate what they are about to feel, and I want so badly to prepare them for it. But this is their moment, one that cannot be choregraphed, so I firmly plant my feet on the floor ready to be their strength in whichever way they might need. And I do feel sadness for them, for their loss and for what I know will be a difficult road ahead… I see this day after day, and this part is always hardest for me to watch, and I ache for them.
Sometimes my reaction is not about them or their loss, but instead my own personal losses, which come back again, and again for me. I did not have a close relationship to my parents and when they died, both of which I was there for, I felt nothing, numb and empty. These are feelings no one should ever have to feel or carry with them for the rest of their lives, and they can be very heavy. Working in end-of-life care brings them to the surface often. When I am in the room with a daughter who is about to say goodbye to their parent, and I hear the stories of their lives together and their relationships, which are most often strong, I cry a little inside each time. And every time the last breath is taken, I am reminded that I did not have that kind of relationship with my parents, and I did not feel that way when they died, and I wish so badly that I had. This gets put on “replay” often for me, something I know will never go away.
And when someone is about to say goodbye to their sister, a feeling I am familiar with, and they look at me, trying to express the pain they are feeling, and say, "I don't want to lose my sister," I just look at them and respond, "I know." I am reminded every single time someone loses their sister, exactly how I feel from losing mine, and this never goes away.
I think it is fair to say that all the death I have witnessed, affects me personally. Sometimes I cry a lot, and sometimes I don’t. Most of the time my tears are for them, their loss, and their grief, but many times, they are for me and my own. I am incredibly empathetic, “showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I feel their pain, their deep ache inside, their grief, their loss and the painful reality of how truly final death can be.
And for each death I witness, I often relive my own experiences, my own personal losses and sometimes the grief I have not fully dealt with yet. As time goes by, and I practice self-care and continuous healing, it is these experiences, that help me work through it. Perhaps it is my own response to each situation that helps me to truly understand the depth of grief from loss, and that it cannot magically fade with time, but instead lingers forever, popping up at the most random times, always reminding us it is there. I am reminded daily of the emotional response to navigating grief and loss. And yes, I also have an emotional response. Often.