A question I come back to again and again is: What type of death is hardest on survivors? A loved one who goes through a long, drawn-out illness and eventually succumbs to death, or a loved one who dies suddenly and unexpectedly?
I’ve turned this question over in my own head countless times and I’ve debated it with friends. But this question came up spontaneously when I met with the Carlyle book club in Minneapolis this week. It stimulated great discussion; it was nice to hear from a lot of people all at once. As you might imagine, the consensus was split.
My dad died unexpectedly. It was a shock and the surprise of it had long-lasting ramifications which may have been mitigated had we been better “prepared” emotionally. But one thing is that I didn’t have to watch my dad suffer, at least for long. I saw his suffering for a brief moment and that was enough. He died of cancer, which usually involves a long, slow, painful death. I didn’t have to see my dad waste away. In my memory, he is the strong, strapping, big guy that he always was. That is hugely important to me.
On the flip side, an extended illness would have given me and the rest of my family time to say goodbye. What I wouldn’t give to have had that. But that would have come at the expense of having to see him become sicker and sicker.
I come from a family in which the unexpected deaths outnumber the long illnesses. Far too much heart disease exists in my extended family, and when someone has a heart attack it’s usually the fatal, massive kind. So I can’t speak from much experience in watching a loved one go through a long, terminal illness. Should I be grateful for that?
In short, there’s no “preferable” way to watch someone die. What do you think? If you had a choice, which one would you prefer to witness?