Who is going to take care of me?
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
Awhile back I received a call from the daughter of a patient who had passed away. She had spent the past two years providing the most wonderful care for her mother; quitting her job to be at her bedside until she took her last breaths. I spent a lot of time with her, providing her with comfort and support while she did the same for her mother. She was fragile towards the end, and in some ways almost broken. Early on, she had a certain sense of power and strength that in many ways I found myself in awe of. She had purpose and intention; she was strong and determined to take on the role of a fulltime caregiver to her mother who was dying. When her mother passed away, she fell to the floor and curled up like a small child and just cried. I curled up next to her and held her, it was the only thing I could think of doing. We knew this day was coming, but it doesn’t matter how much time you have to prepare; when those last breaths are taken, it is as though you are taken completely by surprise and never saw it coming.
When she called me, she asked me, “when will this pain go away”? How do you answer that without inflicting your own thoughts and opinions? I don’t think it ever goes away. I don’t think you can truly get over the loss of someone you love and sometimes I think it only gets worse with time. These are my feelings though; this is how I react to the loss of someone I love. I understand deep pain from losing someone I love and sometimes it hurts so bad just remembering that they are gone and that I don’t get to see them again. Sometimes I forget, and then I remember and I cry because I forgot, and I ask myself how the heck could I forget? And it is as though the pain starts back up again from the beginning, and it feels so raw and the ache is so horrible. And I just cry.
She was in tears when she asked me that question, and I knew that she was right in the middle of some pretty powerful feelings. I also knew that the words I chose, had to be about her and her grief, and said with intention to provide comfort, mixed with some brutal honestly wrapped carefully around them in hopes to truly ease her pain. For a moment I considered a generic response, I thought about the things other people say, like “it will get better with time”, and while that might provide comfort for someone else that wouldn’t work for me. I understand that this wasn’t about me, but I do know pain from loss and I have seen a lot of pain, from loss. So I opted for the brutal honesty.
“I don’t think your pain will ever go away. I think when you love someone as much as you love your mom, that love stays in your heart forever, and I think you will miss her forever. I do believe that in time, it might weigh a little less, and your tears won’t fall as hard. Grief and loss are tempered with time, and over time, the edges get softened. I would like to think it becomes a little less rough.” She thanked me for my response and I could hear her tears slow and her voice was less emotional. But then she asked me, “Who is going to take care of me”? It hit me that while the loss was real, and the pain was real, what she was also feeling, was a sense of abandonment. Although her mom was ill, and she was the one providing care for her, her mom was still there and they could still have that intimate connection but when she died, her daughter felt left, and alone.
No one wants to admit the feeling of abandonment when someone dies, but I think that is a real feeling. Whether it is a wife, or a husband, a sibling or a parent… when they die, a part of you leaves. I understand that feeling of “who is going to take care of me”, because I have felt it too. It feels selfish. They lost their life and I make it about me. How can we not? I admitted my own feelings to my patient’s daughter; I was honest with her that I understood where she was coming from. Death is so incredibly permanent and the loss is very real. And yes, sometimes it feels like they left you. I get that. I think the first step is to be completely honest about those feelings and to find someone you can talk to, because these are feelings that need to be heard.
She called me recently, to share that she had joined a group where she could talk about everything she was feeling. She said that she opened up about feeling selfish about her loss, and the feelings of abandonment she kept hidden away. She said that there were a few others that felt the same and they were able to talk about it and work through it together and she felt supported and safe. This was comforting to me.
When someone you love dies, I think it is fair to say that it feels as though they left you. Perhaps this is why so many people hold on at the end, fighting their death until they can no longer fight it. They don’t want to leave you. I often tell family members to let their loved one know it is okay to go… but it is not okay, we don’t want them to go. We also encourage people to say “I will be okay” but I think we can all agree that at that time, we do not feel like we are going to be okay. Grief at the beginning feels inconsolable, you are so devastated by the loss, but after awhile it lightens, it goes from feeling totally crushing to tolerable and you find a way to move through it with a little less difficulty.
Grief is unpredictable; we do not all move through it the same way and some people have a harder time than others. The best thing we can do for someone experiencing grief is to offer an ear, provide support without judgment and accept that his or her feelings are valid even if it is not something we might feel or even understand. And if someone asks you, “who will take care of me”? You respond with, “I will”.