By Abigail Brenner, M.D.
So much is written about death itself. But much less is written about how to prepare for the death of a loved one. It’s not a topic most want to deal with. It makes us anxious, sad, and extremely uncomfortable to think about the loss of a loved one. While things are going along fine, thinking about death in the future may seem so remote from life in the present that there is no cause to be concerned about it now.
That may be fine for the young and healthy. But as we age, we move closer to eventual losses, and the need to ponder issues around death may move more to the forefront. Certainly, when illness and/or accident hit us, these issues of mortality and eventual loss may become inevitable. I’m by no means suggesting that we need to become morose about life, dwelling on all that could go wrong. But on the other hand, we need to become aware that life changes all the time. And some of those life changes imply loss.
While the loss of any significant person in your life is profound, perhaps the most complex of all relationships are those individuals we choose to be with for a lifetime—those who share our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and tragedies, our triumphs and joys. The death of a spouse/partner marks the end of a once-shared life, a life that no one else knows, and the absence of this may create a painful void.
How well are we prepared for the loss of someone who has played such an important role in our lives, and who has meant so much? For most of us, probably no amount of preparation will ever be enough to adequately cover the transition over the whole territory of loss. The death of a loved one must be experienced to be known, and only then can we say how we feel and what we’ll need to do for ourselves moving forward.
But there are several things we can do before someone actually dies to help us prepare ourselves when the time comes. Some of these are practical rather than emotional and psychological. But often, the practical—having something to do, following a plan you have previously made—provides an order to life that may otherwise feel chaotic.
Say everything you need and want to say. People often regret that they never expressed certain thoughts and feelings while someone was alive and that they will not have the opportunity ever again. Say whatever you want to express today. Don’t wait until tomorrow.
Say “I love you” frequently. Openly express your love and caring whenever you are with your loved one. We often take life for granted. We assume things will go on as they normally do. But sometimes there is uncertainty and unpredictability, and things happen beyond our control.
Without meaning to be morbid, any moment could be the last moment. Take every opportunity to express your love. At the very least, it will make your loved one feel cared for.
Fully discuss family assets. This includes where everything (finances, property, personal items, etc.) are to be found. Know your lawyer, asset manager/financial adviser. Know your banking information and account numbers. Often, one spouse will handle this, and although the other may generally know all of the information, they may not know where everything is located.
Know that you will deeply mourn the loss. The work of mourning, from a therapeutic point of view, is to separate or de-cathect, from the deceased. More than physical separation, this is the process of detaching and withdrawing the mental and emotional energy with which the deceased has been invested.
Understand that you will grieve for a very long time. And maybe forever. And that is normal. Grieving means to sorrow for. But more accurately from the Latin, grieving means to burden, from the word gravis meaning heavy. We carry the burden of a heavy heart, not only for the loss of the loved one but for ourselves, alone, without them. “Who am I if you are not here? How will I go on?”
The living grieve for the dead, but more, they grieve for that part of themselves that “dies” along with the loved one. Loss is really about how we experience the absence of those we love and how we process the emptiness we feel without them. Don’t let anyone set a standard or define a course of how or for how long you should grieve.
Spend some time thinking about what life will look like, as best you can imagine, when your loved one is gone. This may sound like a frivolous exercise, but in reality, understanding that you have many options open to you and being able to envision yourself living your life in a different way may help you organize and may facilitate making plans for your future when the time comes.
Give yourself the latitude to find your own rhythm and your own way. There is no urgency about making immediate changes once a loved one has passed. A better, more realistic perspective is achieved by giving things time to settle themselves. Unless there is a very good reason for an immediate response, don’t sell the house or business, move, or get rid of anything that is a reminder of that person. Wait until you’ve had ample time to think things through, and you’re sure you know what you want to do.
A big part of the process when a loved one dies is learning how to take your time. Your time will not be ordinary time in the usual sense. The linear and logical will inevitably interweave with memory and reverie. Take care of yourself. With the loss of a relationship comes the loss of love emanating from another that one has felt all along. Re-evaluating the meaning of love in your life starts with learning how to fully love yourself again.