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What Do You Do When Death Is a Relief?

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"She died this morning at 11 a.m."
"How are you feeling?"
"Sort of numb, I guess. It has been a long time coming."
"Yes, it has."
"I'll miss her and so will my boys."
We sat in silence for barely a moment when my patient said, "I feel horrible admitting this, but I'm also kind of relived she's gone."

When someone you know experiences the death of a loved one you instinctively feel bad for them and say things like, "I'm sorry for your loss." But what happens when that person is not entirely sorry?

This awkward situation is becoming increasingly common, because, like most things, death "just ain't what it used to be." Time was, if you were fortunate enough to live to an old age, you would either get sick, or not, and pass away in a relatively brief span of time. In our country this doesn't happen much anymore. Instead, as clinicians and researchers continue to make significant progress in medicine people are living longer than ever before. However, just as more of us are granted the gift of additional years on earth, the quality of our later years is being significantly degraded. Many older people experience life as lengthy periods of time in and out of hospitals in various states of discomfort. Thus, even though more of us are living longer we are passing those extra years in increasingly poor and degrading mental and physical health.

As a clinical psychologist in full time private practice, I have been increasingly called upon to help my patients with the challenges of having a loved one who is struggling with extended illness towards the end of their lives -- sometimes for years on end. Time and again, I have worked with patients who have suffered alongside an ailing relative as their lives are bound up in a suspended state of existence with a parent, or other relative. When death arrives, often after many months -- or years -- of physical and emotional suffering, many of my patients have expressed feeling sad, though they often guiltily admit that they are not particularly sorry. In fact, more than a couple of people I have worked with have expressed a sense of relief when a long-suffering family member has passed on. Bereavement always brings conflicting emotions, but perhaps it has never been as complicated as it is now.

As we, as a society, continue to exchange mortality for morbidity this is an increasingly common experience that we all need to learn about in order to provide the best emotional care for one another. We need to rethink the meaning of mortality because, although death always involves emotional loss, it can also involve emotional gain for the survivors who may have put their lives on hold for years. Death may be sad, but it is not necessarily tragic. It can, at times, represent much needed relief from years of suffering for the decedent and survivors alike.

If you, or someone you know, have had an experience like this, you are not alone. Take the time you need to consider the complexity of your emotional experience and know that if you are struggling because you are also experiencing a sense of relief, you are not a bad person, just a person. Death is a complicated subject and something that we all must come to terms with in our own ways. There is no "right way" to grieve. Instead there are different approaches to making sense of loss. Please find a therapist, a bereavement group, or other productive outlets for your feelings to help you make sense of the fact that death has become increasingly complicated in our modern world.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.

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