Topic 5: 'The biggest lessons I learnt in dealing with the loss of a loved one'

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Everyone processes grief in different ways. Whether you experience a sudden loss or watch your loved one battle an illness over a long period, the pain can feel overwhelming.

It can be difficult to articulate the emotional impact that the passing of a beloved family member or friend has on you, days, months and even years later. And it can be equally hard for people to know how to help you, or even what to say, when you’re losing or have lost a loved one.                

That’s why we asked the Starts at 60 community to reflect on their experiences during their toughest times, and what they would tell others about farewelling a beloved partner, family member or friend.

Margaret shared how her mother died peacefully in her sleep the very night she returned home from a six-month trip around Australia with Margaret’s father.

Read more: Why it’s time to take ownership of our own death

“What I learnt from her death is how hard it is being left with a grieving parent, who never recovered from his loss, and had 16 miserable and lonely years before he too died,” Margaret recalls. “Nothing we did could make his life better and eventually his best (and worst) friend became scotch.”

One of the other lessons Margaret now shares with others as something to consider while you’re alive, is the importance of decluttering your house and your life while you still can. “It is so hard to clean out a parent’s house,” she says. “Having to throw out stuff that you know meant something to them, but very little to us children.”

Lorraine also found the experience of going through her parent’s treasured items heart-breaking. “To have to go through their personal things is like going through their death a second time,” she says.

She remembers “the large suitcase full of every Christmas, Mother’s Day and birthday card we had ever given her, and our old school books from 50 years ago. What you feel when you toss them is like you are being cruel, heartless and it hurts your soul to do it”.

According to Margareta Magnusson, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, some people can’t wrap their heads around death, and these people leave a mess after them. “I’ve death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone has to death clean for me,’ she writes.

The subtitle of her book – How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant – makes clear, though, that the process of cutting down on possessions is as much about creating more time to enjoy life as it is about preparing for death.

Lorraine also notes the importance of how you communicate your wishes to your close family members as you age. She remembers being haunted by the words her father always said to her: “Don’t ever put me in one of those homes, just hit me over the head, it would be kinder”.

“l understand where he was coming from,” she says, “but please don’t ever say that to your children. Think of how they will feel when they have to do just that, as I did in his last months. His words echoed in my ears every day he was in care. It really hurt my heart so badly.”

Adjusting to the fact that a loved one is no longer around can take days, weeks or even years to fully process, so people shouldn’t be surprised if a person initially appears numb to their loss.

Wendy describes what felt like a very strange experience when her girlfriend died of breast cancer. “My mind somehow wasn’t convinced she was dead,” she says. “I knew I would never see her again, but it was like she had moved away. Gone overseas or moved states. This went on for about three days.

“I was then at work with my husband. We owned a truck and I helped him with the deliveries, when suddenly I said to my husband, ‘Trish has gone’. He said that she would always remain with me. ‘No’, I said. ‘She has gone.’ Took me a while to explain I could no longer see her. She had been in my head all that time and then she was gone. It is now over two years since she left but I will always remember her.”

Nor, though, should people be surprised when a bereaved person does eventually ‘move on’ – it’s not a sign they’ve stopped loving or missing the person they lost, but that they may be remembering them in a different way.

Sharing about his difficulty in watching his beloved father die from pneumonia following a 19-month stay in a nursing home, Michael says the wave of grief came over him a week after the death.

“Grief for me was delayed because when he did pass away I felt a sense of relief mixed with the sadness of losing such a good friend as he’d been to me,” he recalls. “Dad suffered, and in death he ceased to suffer.”

Through the many hours he sat with his father during his illness and in those final few moments, Michael also learnt that his father really just needed him to be there. “He needed support and although he wasn’t able to speak much he knew what was going on around him. Such as telling me, the day he died, we would be having a bet on the horses the Saturday coming.”

Michael explains that it then took some time for him change the house that his father had lived in, and which ultimately became his own.

“Around the house were reminders of him. His caps hung by the back door for a few years after he was gone until I decided it was time to move on,” he says.

“Eventually I took greater charge of my life, renovated his old room, changed everything around and made it my space. Over the past years I have done that to every room … It was a sad time but we have so many wonderful memories of him.”

What lessons did you learn from the death of a loved one? What advice would you give to others facing a loss?

Westpac Dealing with bereavement and the management of a Deceased Estate is a difficult time. We are here to help.

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