Handbook for Mortals : Dying suddenly : During chronic illness or recuperation

When you believe someone you love still has time to live, despite a severe illness, their sudden death will feel startling. When your loved one was stable just a few days ago, you can feel cheated and angry that you were robbed of the time you thought you would have together. Having already endured the anxiety of the illness and begun to face the eventuality of death, it often seems unfair not to get more warning. It may sound odd, but families of most people who die after years of serious heart failure, and about a quarter of people who die of cancer, say that the person died "suddenly." This is not something that even doctors recognize, so usually no one told you that your loved one might die suddenly. Nevertheless, the death is not a complete surprise, and your mind will usually have made some adjustments to the eventuality.

You can take some comfort in knowing that the person is spared the worst that the disease can yield. At times, you may be frankly relieved that death came suddenly, particularly when your loved one has been ill for some time and faced a long period of suffering. But this relief can cause guilt, too. Survivors are often afraid that the feeling of relief will seem like happiness that death occurred. It is valuable to realize that our feelings of relief are motivated by love and concern for someone we love. Relief that suffering was avoided does not make the grief less real or wrenching.

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Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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