The Guilt of Feeling Relief When Someone Dies

A retrospective look at feelings following the death of my spouse in 2019.

The subject of feeling a certain sense of relief following the death of a loved one is really tough. Amidst a fog of emotions, immediately following my wife’s death, I know that relief was a strong and powerful emotion or feeling. What immediately followed was a dark and heavy burden of guilt for feeling this way.

I shared the fact I was feeling this weird sense of relief with my family pretty soon after the guilt washed in, which was not long. Having their reassurance that this was OK and normal was such a help. Had this whole experience not changed me to someone more open about my feelings, I would have probably kept it all in like I used to. Bottling that up would have been bad as the feelings of guilt were totally rotten.

How on earth could I feel relieved that my wife had died? It turns out that this is a very common feeling. Here are some plausible reasons why one might feel a sense of relief:

  • The suffering of your loved one had come to an end. If the end was inevitable you will surely feel relief for them, that finally, the struggle was over both physically and emotionally.
  • The end of that terrible feeling of hopelessness that one can feel waiting for and watching a loved one die over time, knowing there is nothing you can do about it. It is incredibly exhausting and upsetting.
  • You were unable to save your spouse or you should have done more to prevent this from happening. The replaying of events and considering what, if anything, you could have done differently can drive you mad. You can’t change the past.
  • Long term illnesses can effectively freeze other aspects of life and emotion. Nothing moves forward as everything is consumed by the illness and getting through each day. Over time this can drain the spirit. Whilst selfish, if you have given your life to supporting your loved one, suddenly having some time where you can breathe and not be in that mindset for the first time in years is, honestly, a relief.
  • Supporting a loved one in a hospital or hospice, effectively transferring your life there, is exhausting physically and emotionally. This is particularly true when, against everything you know and expect, you have to remain positive and optimistic to those around you – especially your loved one. It is mentally draining when you have to say the right things, but know all too well the reality that lies ahead. It is a relief to no longer have to live a lie, even if everyone around you has lived the same lie with you.
  • Watching and listening through the final hours or days as a loved one’s breathing becomes more shallow and laboured. Thinking every breath or pause might be the last is truly horrible and, when the end finally comes, you are just so glad that it is over. Suddenly there is peace for your loved one and yourself.

Many people find this last moment, mentioned above, strangely calm and relaxing and not as scary as you might imagine. This was certainly true for me. It was a moment I had been dreading, having never seen a dead human being before. The peacefulness that came, after an agonising 24-48 hours of laboured breathing, made me feel relief for my wife, more than anything. She had found peace, at last.

Part of me had wanted her to wake up, but I was scared that she would and be frightened and upset, so it was better for her that she didn’t. To me, it felt as if so many things needed to be said but this would have only been for my benefit under the circumstances. Experiencing this time, where unsaid words felt powerful and important, has made me realise that you shouldn’t wait to talk about important things or let people you care about know how you feel; tomorrow might be too late.

Typically, I had briefly left the room to see ES after being awake for two nights when she passed, but she was with her brother and father. Somehow that felt right. Apparently it is quite common for that to happen like a “watched pot never boils”. It wasn’t a scary thing seeing her there. It was sad certainly but not scary, as the previous hours had been. Goodbyes were said, not for the first time, and there was a sense of relief and peace that the hours, days, weeks, months and years of this fight were over.

Relief is not happiness. It does not mean that you don’t care. It doesn’t mean you aren’t sad. Do not judge yourself on this. Do not feel guilt in feeling relief. It is a common human emotion. If you look at one of the dictionary definitions of “relief” you will see:

Relief: Noun
A feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress

This is exactly what it is – a release from anxiety and distress for everyone. Do not be ashamed of it.

For more information about relief and associated guilt take a look at these links. It is good to be reassured it is perfectly normal

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