Are you allowed to be happy that someone has died?
I was about ten when she flooded the bottom floor of her home. She left the kitchen tap running overnight; an understandable mistake. She had to have been around 75…76. Chalk it up to old age. These things happen.
The second occurrence, in less than a year, was cause for concern.
A visit to a specialist informed us that Nana had a brain tumor that had been growing for an estimated 25 years.
Nana lived for another ten or twelve years post-surgery, but I won’t pretend they were happy years. The surgery only slowed her steady decline into dementia, rather than stopping it. Within a year or two Pops decided they needed to downsize from two- to one-story and be closer to family shortening the 160-mile distance between us to a mere five.
Over time, her memory issues grew even bigger, along with developing paranoia and anger. She’d hide jewelry and other valuables out of fear that Pops would gift them to the multitudes of women with whom she accused him of having affairs. This led to many arguments, as she’d then lose the jewelry because she couldn’t remember where she’d hidden it.
When she started wandering out alone, unable to find her way home, Pops was forced to place her in the memory care ward of a nursing home. It pained him to lock her away like a prisoner, but how else was he to keep her safe?
He obtained an independent living space on the property so that he could visit her daily, but that didn’t keep his heart from aching. For her. For all of them. Those people once strong, fierce, and independent. Now empty shells of human flesh, walking about, eating, yet lacking life in their eyes. Most of the time she couldn’t even remember her own name.
None of them could.
Nana and Pops deserve an entire book dedicated to their story. I’d be doing them a disservice to pretend that I can do justice to their plight in a single article. I merely hope to have outlined enough of it for you to understand.
When I learned of Nana’s death, I was nothing short of relieved. While I never once wished her to die, I won’t pretend that the news made me sad. I did, however, have a plethora of other complex emotions.
To be honest, I never knew my Nana. Not really. I’d only known a woman affected by the horror that is dementia. As I grew older, becoming more and more cognizant of those around me, she’d been growing less and less aware. I’d grieved her passing a piece at a time for years before it happened.
Most deaths are like breaking a bone. Even if you see it coming, the pain is excruciating, lingering for a few weeks and dulling over time, until it reaches a point that you only feel the pain when you let yourself be taken back to the memory.
But the loss of someone with dementia is more like the ugly scar that hangs around on the skin long after the bone has healed and the pain has dissipated. A scar that fades slowly over the years, until you realize one day that it’s no longer there. While you sort of miss being asked to tell its story, you’re also exhausted from repeating it.
I wasn’t sad.
The only emotion I felt concerning how her death affected me was guilt. Guilt because I wasn’t sad.
Regarding Nana, I felt relief. She was a good woman and she didn’t deserve to be trapped in a hellish version of purgatory. Her body functioning but her consciousness lost floating in the universe, expressing fear and confusion upon her occasional return. She was aware that she didn’t know who she was.
It’s an indignant fate that nobody deserves to suffer.
For my parents, I was happy. Newly retired and thus available while my mother was still working, my father had taken on the burden of regular visits to the nursing home. Despite being a man who says very little and emotes even less, I know those years took their toll on him. His dedication to my grandparents is one of the things that helps me remember how much he loves my mother. You don’t visit your dying in-laws for your own sake. You do it for your spouse.
My mom, visiting as often as she could (at least weekly), had her heart shattered time and time again when Nana didn’t recognize her own daughter.
The only person I felt sadness for was my grandfather, but even for him I felt some relief. He was desperately heartbroken when Nana passed, but his own health was suffering. In a rapid decline from prostate cancer, I’m of the belief the only reason he held on through the pain was that he refused to abandon her.
Four months after she passed, he followed. His death broke me, and still brings me to tears to think about, but that is a story for a different day.
Five years after my Nana’s death, a childhood friend lost her own grandmother who had also suffered dementia. Cindy* shared that while her heart was heavy for her mother’s sake, she also felt guilty because she wasn’t sad about her grandmother’s passing. Cindy was also afraid to share this information with her family, as she wanted to be sensitive to their grief.
I encountered this again last week, talking with my friend Anna* who’s alcoholic, depressed grandfather passed last year. She expressed gratitude for his passing. His death brought his children closer together, in addition to removing his own pain. Yet again, Anna held these feelings in at the time, because of a desire to hold space for the grief of her loved ones.
This brings me back to the initial question: is it okay to be happy when someone dies? Or at least, is it justified to not be sad?
It is valid to feel anything that you feel anytime that you feel it. Regardless of the circumstance.
Feeling guilty about having emotions outside the accepted social spectrum doesn’t help anything. It only causes us to erect walls and bury our grief. But if you do feel guilty, that is also valid.
Will you have to be careful about who you choose to share your feelings with? Of course. But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be heard. There is always someone willing to listen, you just have to ask.
Before you go
*Names have been changed for privacy purposes.
If you’re struggling with your own complicated emotions and need someone to listen — I might be a stranger on the internet, but I’m happy to hold space. annemarie(at)annemar(dot)net