Friday, May 7, 2010

When death does not bring pain.

I was talking to a patient's daughter the other day. She was one of 4 siblings, all close. The family was seemingly normal from the outside; beautiful home, well educated kids, new cars, well-manicured yard. You get the picture.

But the picture never tells the real story. It is just that, a picture.

A facade.

The daughter told me that she was not going to to miss her mother and felt really bad about not feeling bad. After all, she loved her mother dearly.

"I will finally be free to be myself," she told me. "All of my life I struggled to have her accept me for who I was, but I never lived up to her standards, try as I may. Her death means freedom to me. Freedom from criticism and pain."


I hear this sometimes. About how the death of a family member feels freeing. Sometimes there is obvious abuse, the relationship had been severed and the feeling of relief is expected. Other times, the abuse is insidious. The person appears to be well cared for and loved. And they are, but only if certain terms are met. It does not appear to be abusive, and may not be abusive per se, but it can be just as harmful.

And always hurtful.

Sometimes death brings a feeling of relief even to those of us who loved the deceased dearly and were loved by the deceased dearly.

It is hard to watch a loved one lost forever to the cruelty of Alzheimer's disease; it is equally as hard to watch someone suffer in pain, be unable to breath or to lie motionless in a coma attached to a ventilator.

Sometimes that feeling of relief cascades into feelings of guilt. We may feel guilty about feeling relieved. I see this happen a lot. Death brings with it many mixed emotions. But sometimes not sadness and pain.

I hope that the woman I spoke to does allow herself the freedom she desires now that her mother has passed away. But I am doubtful. After all, she was always seeking her mother's approval and now she will never have it. And that is truly sad.

Many loved ones who spent their life trying to appease a mother or father continue that relationship long after death. Death does not bring for them any "closure'; they hear the voice of their mother or father all of the time and will never, ever live up to their expectations, even though they continually strive to do so.

I am not sure we can ever really be free from our relationships with our family. Not even after death. Sometimes that continued relationship brings us comfort; but, for many, like my patient's daughter, even death will never bring her the freedom she is seeking. She may never allow herself to be free. And she will never know the answers.

There is no good ending to this story. No epiphany. No real lesson learned. Life is simply messy. And the emotions we feel can be troublesome and confusing.

By the way, the other siblings had various mixed emotions as well.

I liked the mom. She seemed lovely. She had not a clue as to how her adult children felt.

And she died peacefully in her sleep.

"None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever."
~~Eugene O'Neill (Long Day's Journey into Night)

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”
~~Walter Cronkite


  1. Thank you. I find this post very comforting.

  2. I have a good relationship with my father, though he died in 1996. He's often with me as I move along. I am grateful for that.