Grief and the (Un)Expected Death

A year before he died, my husband had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on one side, severely brain-injured, and with a long list of complicated health issues. He ultimately died after the fourth of a series of surgeries on his skull. A few people, upon learning of his death, said something to me along the lines of, “Well, it’s not a surprise,” or “You expected this, didn’t you?”

The thought that he could die was in the back of my mind ever since he had the stroke, but did I expect my 61 year-old husband, who had been strong and healthy his entire life and was working his ass off in PT, to die a year later? No. I knew his health was precarious and the surgery he was undergoing came with risks, but that didn’t make his death any less surprising for me. When people suggest that I wasn’t surprised, it feels to me like they are minimizing the impact of his death. When they suggest that I should have known he was going to die, it feels like a negative judgement on my grief.

Whether or not the death of a loved one comes as a surprise does not make the grief a survivor feels more or less profound. People who lose a loved one to a protracted terminal illness knew their loved one would die and that might allow them to make arrangements that ease some aspects of the death, but it does not make the loss less painful. The loss of a loved one is the loss of a loved one, regardless of the amount of surprise involved.

The grief for a death that is sudden versus the grief for a death that comes after a long decline or a terminal diagnosis can’t be measured or compared. How can I compare the sudden death of my mother when I was 12 to watching my husband wither away over a period of a year? The two deaths cannot be compared and I see no benefit to me to compare them. No two losses are the same and they can’t be measured against each other.  

I’ve talked before about the tendency folks seem to have to rank, measure, and score grief. I think categorizing things helps us make sense of them, but 10 ½ months into grieving my husband, I have not found a categorizing system that makes my grief easier to experience. I have found much to appreciate about my grieving experience, but it has all been painful. I think people want to believe that a loss that is less surprising is less painful, but with or without the element of surprise, the loss of a loved one hurts.

Since everyone dies, it could be said that no death should ever be a surprise. And yet, there seems to almost always be an element of surprise—the timing, the circumstances, or something else. I may not have expected my husband to live forever, but I did not expect him to die that day. I was surprised by so many things: that my last conversation with my husband was in a hospital; that he was only 61; that we had only 12 years together; that someone could never wake up from a surgery that was technically a success; the clarity I felt about removing my husband from life support; the sense of honor I felt holding him while he took his last breath; that I would never again sleep in the same bed with him or refill his prescriptions or dress him or laugh with him.

There are many things that could have made his death harder on me: had we not had financial stability or health insurance; had I not had solid relationships with his family members; had our marriage been complicated; had we not talked at length about the types of medical interventions we might want to keep us alive in dire circumstances. But nothing could have made his death easy for me. I may have been less surprised by his death than by my mother’s, but I did not expect it. I may have had in the back of my mind the idea that Tom could die, but that didn’t make the loss any less devastating to me.

I think the idea that an expected death makes grieving easier is based on a misunderstanding. Grief is about loss, not about expectations being met.

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