Grief or Relief - What Is It?

By Carol Bradley Bursack

“Carol, I’m so sorry about your dad,” people told me after he died. “I’m sure you miss him.” They were right. I missed him terribly. But, my dad had, effectively, died on an operating table ten years before. The man we just buried was my dad, yet not really. The pain and the grief had started after I knew he would never again be the man who went into surgery. And his death? It brought grief. But it also brought relief. The suffering was over. 

Grief and relief are often experienced at the same time. But, for most of us, if we try to separate them – to make sense of them – they get all jumbled up with guilt, blame and the other feelings related to grief. When we have watched someone struggle; when we’ve watched them suffer; when we’ve endured days, months, years of pain as we witness the shell of a person we love living on while their essence shrivels, why wouldn’t we feel a certain relief when they die?

Dad died in my arms. He’d been in terrible pain. Unable to articulate his pain, he’d grimace and pound his fist into his hand. The doctor would come by on his rounds and see he was sleeping. The records showed he got “enough” sleep. So, how could he be in pain?

The nurses, the aides, the family – we all knew his body language. We knew his breathing. We knew his mind. He was suffering. Finally, a spunky nurse convinced a different doctor to clear him for hospice care. From the time Dad was cared for by hospice, he was out of pain and peaceful. I’d sit with him and see him breathe easily. The frantic pounding had stopped. When Dad’s body finally let go, I felt my real dad with me for the first time in ten years. I held him and felt his spirit fly. I feel him with me now.

My mother had entered a nursing home, the one where my dad already lived, because of chronic falls and a failing mind. She spent over seven years there. Over time, her severe arthritis had devoured her joints. Though she’d had hip replacements years earlier, she had used a walker for years. As the years in the home went by, her pain became more difficult to manage. Her knees ground bone on bone. Her wrists were knots, her fingers gnarled. Her spine cracked with each move. She weighed less than 90 pounds. Eventually, her pain was unbearable and it was clear that, five months after my dad’s death, she had no will to go on.

​Hospice, God bless them, was finally allowed to manage her pain. During her death process, my sister and I kept cheering her on. Dad was waiting! Her sisters and parents were waiting! Go, Mom, go! Likely, anyone walking by her room thought we’d finally lost it. But the reality was that she had no quality of life left. She was ready to go.

Grief? Yes. But, relief, as well. Why wouldn’t we feel that way? Could we possibly not see her suffering? Could we possibly think she should go on, so we wouldn’t “lose” our mother? Our mother was fading away before our eyes, in a very painful manner. The medications were not enough to ease her suffering. Only death could do that. And, finally, death did.

A jumble of emotions will always be associated with my parent’s death. I miss them. I wish they could read my column and see Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories as a published book. I wish they could, see, hear and read my interviews. I can be angry that they had to suffer long, slow deaths, if I choose to dwell on that. I do feel grief. But one emotion I don’t have is guilt for feeling relief that their suffering has ended. For that I am grateful.

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