It is gut wrenching to watch someone die. I use the term purposefully; as in internal anguish or the visceral twisting that people feel on the inside. Even when the person passing is completely at peace, and all symptoms treated, there will inevitably be something on the inside that doesn’t feel right.
There is the more obvious reason to be feeling this way, which is impending grief. Our unique ability as humans to anticipate and even predict how an event will affect us emotionally, mentally, and physically allows for the pre-grieving that loved ones do in the waiting period.
Thinking about the future loss will certainly be gut wrenching, and this emotion doesn’t necessarily surprise us. What does surprise us, however, is a far more common internal conflict that is nearly universal and yet seldom acknowledged because of the guilt associated with it.
Usually this is the realization that some part of us actually desires for our loved one to die. We chide ourselves and feel guilty, but can’t help the thoughts. This feeling, however, doesn’t stem from malice, but from empathy and compassion.
It occurs when we allow ourselves to step into our loved one’s reality. We think about how they must feel, the pain they may be experiencing, the waiting they are doing. If there is even a hint of potential suffering, then because of our great love for them, we want to take that suffering away and ultimately that may mean death.
Despite the altruistic etiology of this emotion, it nonetheless feels wrong to wish for death for someone we love. Thus, our gut wrenches.
There is a flip side to this that can cause just as much internal strife, and that is the desire for our loved ones to live. This would seem to be contrary to conflict, for shouldn’t we want our loved ones to live? Yes, unless our loved ones don’t want to live. When they voice to us to “let me go,” or show signs of suffering, and yet we recognize within ourselves an opposing and opposite emotion for them to live, this causes anguish.
Unlike the desire for death, the etiology of the desire for our loved ones to go on living is actually selfish. In the face of suffering, for us to say “keep living,” we are asking for our hopes to be met, not theirs. This ultimate longing doesn’t stem from malice, but from our deep love that wants that person to continue to exist. It is the reality of the selfish nature of this wish, which leads our gut to wrench.
Essentially, as we sit in the space of waiting while our loved ones die, we experience all of these gut-wrenching emotions. The problem is we expect to be sad, but we don’t expect to be fighting a monumental internal battle over life and death. Please die, don’t die. We expect to feel grief, but we don’t expect guilt. Please die, don’t die.
Bottom line, the gut wrenching felt when we experience death indicates great love. Altruistic motives, selfish motives; at the core is love.
Dr. Amy Clarkson is the medical director for South Wind Hospice.