During the past three years, I’ve met way too many people who have lost their mates. (Until I became one of them, I had no idea the vast numbers of people living with such grief). Some, like me, lost their mates through a long dying. Others lost them instantly. I’ve never been able to figure out which is worse for survivors to deal with. The quick deaths bring such shock and disbelief that it seems impossible to survive, but we who have plenty of time to get used to the idea have to deal with the memories of our lack of generosity toward our long-dying mates. The trouble is that when someone dies slowly, as the months and maybe even years pass, we get used to their dying. The dying itself becomes a way of life, so that a flash of irritation here or a lack of empathy there means little in the fullness of the days. It’s only when they are gone that these things loom large, and we wonder why we couldn’t have held to our equanimity just a couple of months longer.
But of course, we did not know how short a time we had to be with him. It felt like a new low is all, and at the end, death came in an instant, as all deaths do, bringing shock and disbelief.
In the world of grief, I am one of the lucky ones — I got to say good-bye. That is the thing that haunts so many bereft — their inability bid farewell to the person who meant more to them than any other. It’s not just those whose spouses died suddenly in an accident or from an unnexpected heart attack who never got a chance to say good-bye. I’ve heard sad stories of hospital personnel cleaning out the emergency room too quickly so that the person left behind never even got a chance to see their beloved one last time. I’ve heard of nurses who demanded the bereft to be quiet in their weeping or quick in saying those few final precious words. I’ve heard of doctors who insisted the ill one would get better, giving the couple no reason to believe they would need to say good-bye.
One woman, whose husband died in a vehicle accident, was particularly sick with regret. After she’d been notified of the tragedy, she’d gone to the hospital to find him already on the way to the morgue, leaving her with no way to say good-bye. She too, is one of the lucky ones. He came to her in a dream, and told her it was okay, that he’d already been gone from his body, and that he loved her. And in a way, he had already said good-bye. Shortly before his accident, he had called family and friends he hadn’t talked to in a while and chatted with them for no real particular reason, and then a day or two later he unexpectedly invited her to a special lunch. Two hours after that lunch, he was dead.
Such pre-good-byes are fairly common, as if something in us knows the time of our death and prepares for it, but many bereft are left without even such a farewell to bring them comfort. Since parting words seem so important to the grief process, the unfarewelled bereft have to find other ways to say good-bye such as writing letters to the one who is gone, talking to him, or taking a memorial trip to a place that had special meaning. Actually, these are good ideas even for those of us who did get to say good-bye. I’ve written him and talked to him. Maybe one day I’ll take a memorial trip to a place with special meaning, though to be honest, everyplace we ever went — even the grocery store — was special because we were together.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+-