Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Last Person Standing

A week ago I showed up for a meeting in a different state, that was planned over a month before, to find that the person who was in charge of the agenda was missing. The reason for her absence was that she just found out her best friend has cancer, and her dear friend's diagnosis was delivered to her around the first anniversary of the death of her brother from the same awful disease.

Later that day,  I was able to sit with my fellow non-profit director and listen to her tell the story of her friend's diagnosis, the heavy reality of the prognosis, and witness the stubborn look in her eye that said, "I will be there until the very end." I just sat in awe of the strength and grace that is required to be the last person standing....the one who will empty the bed pan; the one who will read or joke or sit quietly depending on what the mood calls for; the one who will give a pedicure, wash the hair, and brush the teeth of the person they love; the one who will relish the 'good' days and stay steady through the bad ones. What a priceless gift to give to your loved one, caregivers are heroes. I realized as we talked that I was not only looking at a person who was capable of this courage, but that I have become that person as well.

You see I literally watched my husband die, but I did not have a chance to nurse him or feed him or comfort him. In fact, up until a year ago I was almost sure he felt no pain when the car hit him. I believed his life was literally knocked out of him. But through the trial process I discovered that in the moments after his death one tear rolled down his cheek. I wish I knew what that tear meant, and more than anything I wish I could have been there to wipe it away. But that was not our course.

I have been asked countless times which is worse...to suffer a long good-bye or to get no good-bye at all. To be honest this question makes my stomach turn. Death is a personal tragedy, time and time again. Who am I to say what is more or less painful? People argue about this, because our logical minds want to make some sense of death, when there is none to be made. The eternal question of why will not be answered in this lifetime, nor will comparing one death to the next mitigate the pain of either party. Death sucks in every form and someone somewhere will be left reeling in its mighty wake each time a life ends.

So though I never uttered a good bye to my Phil, I know for sure that given the opportunity to say a long good-bye to someone I love in the future that I will not hesitate. I won't waste time wondering if I am strong enough, because I am. That crazy truth is another lesson learned through grief. I know the meaning of courage. I know the value of facing my fears. I know that avoiding the end won't avoid any of the pain of loss. I know that I will want to be the last person standing. Thanks for that strength grief, before I met you I didn't know I had it in me.

I am filling in for Michelle today because she is in the hospital after having her appendix removed. I will confess to many moments of anxiety (because of all the lovely lessons grief has taught me!!) as I awaited the news that she was out of surgery and recovering well, but I am happy to report that she is and if you'd like to leave her some get well wishes please do in the comments and I will pass them on!


  1. I'm sure it took alot of courage for you to write this, opening up about your heartbreak when you found out there was a tear. That took my breath away. My experience was a long one and I was a caretaker, and you're right, there is no easy way. What I did was something I will never regret, but my heart broke a hundred times a day over a period of years, and by the last year I was questioning whether or not I would survive it. It strains every part of you as far as you can be stretched, and leaves alot of emotional trauma to deal with in addition to the death itself. It is fruitless to compare deaths, I have heard those conversations also; it is harder to lose a child than a spouse than a parent than a grandparent etc. etc. It's all hard, it's all beyond sad, and it's all loss. After watching what we went through, many people have told me they think a very fast passing through an accident, etc. is preferable because it puts less strain on the family. At the end of the day the grief is the same, and no matter how long one has been a caregiver, one still suffers with all of the "what ifs" and "I wish I had done this or that." It's all out of our control and each person has their destiny. God bless you, what you wrote is very deep and I can empathize a great deal. Thanks.

  2. Prayers for a speedy recovery Michelle,and Thank you for all you and everyone here does to make my days a little more bearable.Lee Ann

  3. I lost my husband to a sudden and very unexpected stroke 14 months ago. I quickly concluded at that time that there was nothing worse. My children and I were robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye and tell him how much we deeply loved him. But over time, and in meeting other widows and hearing many stories of losses, I have come to understand that death does suck for everyone regardless of the reason, the age, the circumstance, etc. My heart breaks every time I hear of a loss. It does just suck.

    Thanks for the post! Best wishes to Michelle to running full speed very soon!

  4. When my husband was diagnosed with melanoma, just when I thought things couldn't get worse, they steadily did. It broke my heart to watch him suffer, especially the last three months of his life, and he did not want to die, he was pissed off about it and fought it to the end. I think when you know you will be "last person standing" you are in survival mode, and do whatever it takes to get through each day. I still second guess myself, but at least both my husband and I acknowledged that we both did the best we could. Thank you Michele, and please wish Michelle a quick recovery for me.

  5. Oh my gosh - her appendix? SO glad she's out of surgery and recovering well!

    Michele, what a hard thing to have had to learn about. I'm so sorry. My first inclination is to believe the reason for that tear was because he was leaving you. (((HUGS)))) and love to you, my friend.

  6. This post really touched my heart. The final paragraph of wondering if you are strong enough and knowing that yes are! Crazy truth learned through grief – a priceless term!
    Learning the value of facing your fears; oh so true! For me, it continues to be a daily lesson of remembering who put the stars in the sky and holds them there – and yet holds me and all of us here in the palm of His hand.
    May we all continue to take each day moment to moment. Thank you for your candor with this post.
    Michelle, may you soon be feeling much better!

  7. What a stunning and honest post. The phrase "last person standing" gave me shivers. I am of the experience of watching my husband die daily for a year and a half. The last three months, I have to be honest . . . I had a few middle of the night moments when I was actually afraid I might die from the grief of it and leave him there in the end. I didn't. I now understand what I had in me that I didn't know in the beginning. I was not going to let go, I was not going to give in, I was not going to let cancer have the last word while it was taking his life. I was going to love him right until the last breath.

    I did that, but so did you.
    Loved him until the very last moment, because when you love someone you don't have to be right there to do it. You can be anywhere. Love transcends space and time.
    I have had people say in summary "well, he had terminal cancer and you knew he was dying all along, it must have been a relief in the end".

    I always answer this way (and forgive the analogy but this is the truth)
    "when he took his last breath, it felt like a truck smashed through our house and took his life. The shock, the utter and complete shock of seeing him no longer breath left me feeling as if I had just witnessed an accident".

    There is no way to prepare for the moment when you realize in your heart - they are gone and they are never coming back. Even if you thought (and I did try to prepare) you would understand. I still don't understand why I am the last one standing and he is the one that died.

    There is no comparison and how wise of you to say that. Death doesn't relieve us of our suffering in the way they die. They are still gone. Like you, I now know what I am made of. I am no longer afraid - I have faced death and I stand knowing if I must, I can do it again. I thank grief for showing me the value of love.

    I thank you for reminding us all.

    I hope Michelle recovers quickly!

  8. Very good post, Michele. And very, very moving.
    We certainly are the last ones standing, for now anyway.
    No matter how we got here ..... we ARE here.
    And that's something.

    Love, hugs and prayers to Michelle!!!

  9. Though I am not a widow I understand death. To answer the question of what hurts worse, knowing death is coming or having it happen suddenly/unexpectedly....they hurt the same. My parents died 2 days apart - my father was ill, we knew it was coming...my mother died suddenly 2 days before he did. They were married 50 years, since they were 16 and 18. The grief and loss is the same.

  10. Wishing Michelle a very speedy recovery. What a good post. As several others above have said - it is not how we lost our spouses, it's that we all are in this same boat of widowhood. How we got here is not to compare but to share in our grief that is all the same or very similar. We all hurt, have pain, deal with the what if's, loneliness, and now support each other, holding each other up and through the worst times of our lives.

  11. Elias shed a few tears as he was 'leaving' as well . . . I've had many theories about it, questions, worries. One of those things I guess we'll never know (at least while we are still here).

  12. I'm at 6+ months out....I found a random wedding picture a couple of weeks ago. There we were, so young and unaware of the hell that would visit us nearly 30 years later, with our parents and my sister. I am the only one alive today. Brings new meaning to Last One Standing. Why do I feel like I drew the short straw?

  13. Thank you everyone for your kind words, and for the wishes for Michelle who is recovery nicely.

    Anonymous who is six months out, yes definitely a different meaning to last one standing, but also the same meaning because I feel sure you loved them right to the end. I remember feeling like I drew the short straw to be standing alone, and very slowly as my heart healed bit by bit I wondered what I chould do with the straw I had left. That is what I hope for you. Be gentle with yourself, grieving is really hard work.

  14. I remember seeing one solitary tear escape just before he took his last breath. But the funny thing is that I thought at the time that I was imagining it. I mean his body had shut down due to the huge damage that the stroke wreaked on him. But now, I realize I didn't imagine it (thanks Michele)

    But now ... esp after reading this, perhaps it was a tear to say he was sorry he was leaving me. (thanks Andrea)

  15. I found my husband submerged in our tub when he went in to take a hot bath. He was 53. That was nine weeks ago. I really do not think I am going to survive. I see no joy in my future.

  16. Anonymous, I can only imagine how horrifying it was to find your husband that way. You have really endured a trauma, and it will take time to even think about joy in your futue, so give yourself the time first to mourn this great loss and second to take care of yourself. Tiny baby steps will lead to the future, and in the meantime please come back here again and again to see the candle of hope we all hold for you.
    You are not alone, even in this.