Earlier this week I sat down at the computer, intending to pound out an article about Labor Day being the unofficial end of Summer, but could not get past the vision I was having of Lee: I’m watching her and just then she opens those soft and large brown eyes I’d grown to love and looks directly into mine. Then, without uttering any last words, she dies.
I remember I said something but not the words. I recall that for a couple of days beforehand I had been steeling myself for Lee’s inevitable and looming end of life experience; my recollection today is that I must have reassured her that it was okay, loving words, supportive words, spoken with sincerity and no regret. Lee died with her eyes wide open. I chose to close them.
It was just Lee’s time, I know. I am deeply appreciative that I was by her side at the exact moment of her death. Now, as I was revisiting this episode in my mind, I had to wipe away sad tears for what seemed like the first time in a long time.
And suddenly, other thoughts were racing through my head. In those haunting last moments together, what had Lee been thinking? Did she have words for me that she wanted to utter but could not because her time ran. I have wondered about these matters during these past two years since Lee died. Why again today? I could not say.
Ironically, the flip side of this same coin – the notion that I might have missed being with Lee at the end—is equally haunting for me. As is often the case whenever I start to engage in such speculations, I elected to conduct research on the internet, hoping to find helpful information.
While I ordinarily would start researching a topic of interest by locating any readily available academic literature for review, to my surprise I discovered a relative dearth of it concerning the consequences and effects of witnessing firsthand the death of a close loved one. Indeed, concerning this I have two main takeaways. First, the question that I was hoping to explore would benefit from further academic study.
Second, as far as I could discern, the consensus among academicians seems to be that being an actual witness to a loved one’s death is an uncommon experience. And, if you stop for one moment to think about it, this second takeaway makes perfect sense. Here in the twenty-first century, most of us will not die at home.
Therefore, I found it unsurprising that much of the literature I did run across dealt with the effects and consequences for professional caretakers involved in witnessing patient death. However, in Lee’s case, once her doctor belatedly spilled that Lee was going to die in the near term, I took immediate steps to bring her home from the hospital. (I previously have written about our decision, a choice which was neither easy nor without practical difficulties while absolutely being the best and right decision for us.)
Usually, I want to see and weigh the empirical evidence before drawing any hard conclusions, but, in this instance, I was not able to unearth hard evidence that shed any light whatsoever on the critical question how my life might be different now had I not witnessed Lee’s death firsthand.
In fact, I gained more insights by reading anecdotes that have been shared with the public by people who are similarly situated to me. I do not claim to know whether any of this stuff would qualify as the type of evidence that an academic might characterize as phenomenological in nature, but it works for me. For example, I took solace in one survivor’s account of witnessing her husband’s death:
“Only seconds before his last breath, he opened his eyes wide and I am sure he was aware of my presence…The hardest day in my life, but I am happy to know I was there and kept my promise to him.”
Her shared experience summarizes exactly how I had felt being present for Lee’s death. On the other hand, I came across other personal accounts from people proclaiming that witnessing the death of a loved one was an awful experience, each certain that his or her personal experience had prolonged, even intensified their grief.
At the same time, my final takeaway is that it is neither helpful nor possible to draw generalizations from a thing so obviously personal, even unique, as being present at the exact moment when a loved one passes. It could be this likelihood that there is nothing to be gained from such generalizing best accounts for the relative dearth of relevant academic writings on the subject.
My life journey continues. The tears have dried. In fact, these days, life feels good. I love Robyn, who also loves me. Our unexpected yet wonderful relationship continues to blossom. It is starting to feel like we are both in it for the long haul.
However, none of this alters the fact that I still mourn Lee every day now that she is gone. In the end I do not feel as if there were many important words between us left unsaid. I do not think I ever told her explicitly that I will be forever grateful for her kindness, her generosity, and her unconditional love, but I am sure she knew it anyway. I never doubted her for one moment when she used to say that I was the one she had been waiting for her whole life, so there would be no reason for me to comment. For whatever it is worth, even now, I still feel undeserving.