A Conversation About Death: The Marathon vs. the Dunking Booth
I recently made dinner for my friend, Eric, as payback for his assistance in fixing my computer. As we dined, our conversation meandered to the subject of dealing with the death of a loved one; in Eric's mind were his father and uncle. I thought about Mom, who is deteriorating as a result of Alzheimer's disease and Chronic Obstructive Pumonary Disorder (COPD), which are attacking her brain and lungs. The challenges, we both noticed, differ when the loss is sudden, say due to a car accident, versus the drawn-out pain of watching a loved one deteriorate slowly and then die due to disease.
Eric had seen his father succumb to cancer after a long battle and suffered the sudden death of his uncle while Eric was in college. In my case, the losses were almost a decade apart. In 1997, I first experienced the death of my close friend, Molly, who was taking her teenage son to visit prospective colleges when their car was knocked into the oncoming traffic on a busy interstate. Her son was killed instantly; Molly lingered for several days before dying. Now in 2007, I can compare Molly’s loss with the numbing wait as Mom’s lungs increasingly give out due to COPD, which also worsens the effect that Alzheimer’s disease has on her.
As we neared the end of the meal, Eric described watching cancer ravage his father’s body. “Sure, I miss him, but his death was almost a relief,” Eric recounted. Eric’s family had tried to actively provide support to his father during this traumatic time, and Eric was thankful to have had an opportunity to get closure on his father’s life and death. I told Eric that I felt the same way with Mom, although there are some differences. I do anticipate that even though I’ll miss her greatly, her eventual death will be a relief to some degree because we will not have to watch her excruciatingly labor for the next breath or experience the confusion and agitation of dementia. Furthermore, as Alzheimer’s disease continues to claim her, the Mom who I have known through the majority of my life is rarely present. So in some ways, I continually have opportunities to “let her go” since Mom increasingly spends our visits staring blankly, offering an incoherent sentence, or experiencing a lot of confusion.
Because of Mom’s long slide into dementia, I mentioned to Eric that one of my fears is that I will have difficulty remembering Mom for the vital woman that she was for most of her life, as opposed to the person that Alzheimer’s has made her into. When I conjure up a memory, will the first one be Mom striding through the Greek ruins in Athens on one of our trips or will it be a memory of Mom experiencing the paranoia that appeared as she descended into Alzheimer’s?
In comparison, after Molly’s death I was in shock and mourning for a long period, complete with emotional numbness and uncontrollable crying at unexpected times. I couldn’t believe that this woman who was so vital had gone so quickly; Molly and I had just shared dinner the week before her death. Furthermore, Molly had been through so much - a bitter divorce, raising three teenage sons, and finding that her hobby (photography) would support her professionally. It just didn’t seem fair that she was suddenly taken from this world; when I think of her now, my memories surround Molly’s love for her sons and ability to take amazing photos.
When Mom dies, I think it will be painful, but I don’t think the pain will be the same as what I experienced when Molly died. Mom has led a full life, whereas Molly was stopped mid-way. Mom’s in her 80s, whereas Molly was in her 50s when she died. The arc of their lives and deaths are different. I told Eric that I anticipate I will be in mourning for Mom for a long time, but in a different way than I was for Molly. Instead, I believe my mourning for Mom already has begun due to the slow slipping of Mom’s life force from her body – the often unperceivable, but subtle ebbing, much like the waves of a sea moving out down the beach in low tide.
In retrospect, I believe that the different types of mourning in the case of Mom and Molly (or of Eric’s father and uncle) come down to whether the survivor has to face a metaphorical marathon or a dunking booth. In the latter, you unexpectedly are dropped from a perch where you sit comfortably perceiving that all is going smoothly. Suddenly, you’re disoriented, awash with the painful reality of your sorrow caused by a sudden death. With the decline of someone who has a disease such as cancer (or COPD combined with Alzheimer’s disease, as in Mom’s case), you face a marathon during which you have to focus on every step of the journey toward a painful distant finish line. You find yourself marshalling extensive caregiving resources, whether it’s spiritual strength, physical stamina, or mental fortitude. The dunking booth of sudden loss in some ways is harder; it’s an emotional shock that can take awhile to get over and leaves the survivor immersed in the icy cold grip of sorrow. The marathon caused by providing care through a love one’s long struggle with a fatal disease means you have to figure out how to sustain yourself for the long-haul, a multi-month or multi-year challenge that forces you to come to grips with the facts of life and to figure out how to move forward in order to help your loved one die with dignity while maintaining and deepening your humanity.