What it CAN BE LIKE for those left behind

I have lost four loved ones to sudden death - through drowning, suicide, a car accident and a malignant arrhythmia. While losing anyone you love is hard, I'm here to tell you that dealing with sudden death is different. As author Ann Patchet noted, it's like falling down an open manhole cover.

My husband kissed me goodbye one morning as he left for work. It was a day like any other. Except for the fact that he never came home.

He had a full physical the afternoon before, which included an ECG. The doctor's visit was a precursor to surgery for the shoulder he dislocated diving after softballs. Other than the beatings his body took from athletic activities and hard work around the house, he seemed to be in great shape. He was only 52 years old. Based on his appearance, the medics guessed he was about 45.

Yet his heart stopped suddenly while he was running during lunch the next day. Moments before, he was joking with his buddies. Then, after he split off from them to run back to the office, he collapsed. Medics reached him within minutes, but their best efforts came to naught.

I know that some people would consider this a "good death." Quick. Probably relatively painless. Little or no suffering.

Many others endure a long, painful illness to reach their end. They are in and out of hospitals. Subjected to seemingly endless tests. Deteriorating, physically, mentally or emotionally, or all three. Experiencing anger, sadness, depression. Losing their dignity and independence. Hopes are dashed over and over when treatments fail. Costs of intensive medical care can be exorbitant, and ultimately bankrupt families. Treatment may provide more time, but often does little or nothing to improve quality of life, and in some cases impairs it. And then there is the torture of waiting. Caretakers are left exhausted. (If you want to feel grateful that your loved one didn't have to endure this, read this book.)

Is one ending"better" than the other? I don't know. Both are hard, just in different ways. I don't think there is any "good" way to die too young. A friend said "there is no good way to be separated from those you love."

I don't know which is 'easier' for the survivors. Anyway, it is probably not good to try to compare. And most of us do not get to choose the when, where and how we leave this world, or how much we suffer. (The exception is those who commit suicide or refuse continued treatments or life support.)

I do know that Doug didn't have an opportunity to see many good friends we never seemed to find enough time to catch up with. To do some things we had dreamed of doing. Or to come to terms with his own departure.

I was left with many questions about what happened and why. I will never be comforted by knowing that everything feasible was done before his collapse to attempt to allow him to live a longer life.

Unlike those who have the opportunity to make health care choices for their loved one, I had no control. I didn't even know anything was seriously wrong with Doug. Lack of control can increase levels of cortisol, a hormone which, when chronically elevated by stress and anxiety,can lead to a host of physiological ills.

I was completely unprepared - mentally, emotionally and financially. I spent the first two months in a state that alternates mostly between shock and denial.

I also didn't have a chance to ask him how he might have wanted to handle the memorial services. (Fortunately I knew him well enough to guess.) Or find out where he put things that I am still looking for. Or find out what he wanted done with all his "stuff." Or get used to the idea of not having him around.

There are many things about our life together that I don't regret. Nothing much was left unsaid. I guess I am "lucky" that at least I knew how much he loved me, and he knew how much I loved him. Still, I would have liked one last chance to tell him so.

I would also have liked one last chance to thank him for how happy he made me and all he did for me, and to ask forgiveness for my many faults.

I loved Doug and would never wish him suffering. Despite that, the selfish part of me laments that I never got to say a final goodbye.

He was alone when he collapsed. Over the decades, Doug was always there for me. I would have liked the chance to be by his side when he left this world forever.





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