The Death of a Loved One

What comfort can be found when there is no hope?

Posted Dec 01, 2018

Edourda de Moura Castro suffered from leukemia. He knew about the disease and had no illusions about its course. His illness had been diagnosed when he was five and now at age seven, he needed an oxygen machine in his bedroom to help reduce his suffering.

Edourda knew he was going to die. He prepared for his death by helping to arrange for his funeral service and by taping a message to other children afflicted with terminal illnesses. He told them, “If you don’t hang on to your body and let yourself ease away, it is not so painful.”

But his pain became too great. He said, “I don’t feel good and I am too sick to live on.” He asked his mother to disconnect the oxygen. His mother said, “I turned it off. He held my hand and a big smile came to his face. Then he left.”

The late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross conducted sessions for people who have a member of the family who is dying. In one workshop a mother and her 18-year-old son who had a brain tumor were present. Together, with others who faced the prospect of death, the son and mother shared their fears and sorrows, their anxieties and anger. The mother asked the group, “What comfort can there be when there is no hope?”

By posing the question, part of the answer was forthcoming. Mother and son had confronted together life’s great tragedy. When the son died, a transition had occurred. Although the mother said that she could barely speak, the act of sharing deep emotions between mother and son had created a foundation upon which the sorrow could be ultimately transformed into the ability to find joy in living.

All that is helpful need not be so profound. In a world filled with noise and parades, we sometimes forget the power of silence. The simplicity of merely being with another is a source of comfort. As May Sarton writes, “Sometimes silence is the greatest sign of understanding and respect. It is far more consoling than words of false comfort.”

Children seem to know this better than adults. A story is told about a girl who went to visit the home of a neighbor where her little friend had died. When she returned, her father asked her why she went.

“To comfort her mother,” she told him. The father was incredulous and asked her what she could have done to console a woman who had suffered such a terrible loss.

“I climbed onto her lap and cried with her,” she said.

Rational appeals, sympathetic words or clichés could not have done as much as this innocent act. Whereas many adults think that they have to say the right word or try to distract the bereaved from thoughts of the departed, the girl knew that there was nothing that could be said. But that didn’t mean that nothing could be done. Sitting on the mother’s lap didn’t lessen the pain; it may have added to it. But it was an expression of caring and concern, a reaching out from the heart, a gesture of hope. It symbolized the continuation of life but did not diminish the anguish. The girl was right: grief genuinely shared is an important means of healing.

Yet we cannot avoid the truth that each death is experienced alone. Gerald Larue writes about the death of his grandson who had not yet reached his second birthday. More than a year after the infant’s death, he said, “We cope in our individual way, and our coping mechanisms fluctuate. I cry often. I am angry - at whom or what I am not sure - but I am angry, for death has robbed me of someone who means so much to me. I am despondent and distant. I need closeness and warmth. I ache, I feel resigned. Moods and changes flow. I think I am in control now, but there are moments when I watch children at play at a recreational center and I feel sad and angry, for I will never be able to take my grandson there. I am flooded with mental images and the images bring pain and tears.

“Now, somehow, life goes on. The world spins on its axis, days fade into weeks, and weeks into months. Time will heal the wounds of loss, but the scars of separation remain, and the memories of a beloved and loving child do not fade.

“Time is precious, but time is only valuable when it enhances and nourishes living. My grandson touched me, and I can never be the same again.”

The death of a loved one changes us forever. Never again will we be the same. But how it changes us is, in part, a choice. We can either be shattered by the experience or find ourselves annealed, like iron smelted in a furnace to make it stronger when cooled. Someone once said that when she thinks of the world she is saddened because she knows that at that very moment snow is falling furiously. Her friend responded that when he thinks of the world, he knows that somewhere at that very moment there is dawn is breaking.

We can think of the world as a place where at this moment an infant is being born.