How I Know A Death Doesn’t Cause Sadness

When I first introduce my clients to the concept that it’s their thinking and not their circumstances of their lives that cause their feelings, I often get some pushback.  I don’t blame them.  We’re not taught this.  In fact, we’re taught the opposite.  We’re taught that the people, things, and events around us are what make us happy or sad.  Our parents tell us it’s our actions that are responsible for them feeling upset with us or proud of us. Advertisers sell billions in products by promising that possessing what they’re selling with make you feel better.

Believing this, however, takes all of your power away.  It sets you up for an unfulfilled life where you remain a victim of your circumstances and the actions of others.  It leaves you always wanting more.  So, I push back.  Then they inevitably ask, “What about death?  Death isn’t neutral.  It’s sad when someone dies.” Now I love to counter this by asking them to think of someone whose death hasn’t made them feel sad, but then I realized I had a better example.

I have the unfortunate honor of regularly telling people about the death of a loved one.  I do it in this little windowless room off the waiting room in the emergency department.  We call it the family room.  It’s an odd name as it’s typically the place families get smaller.  Let me tell you about the last time I sat in that room.

It was a typical overnight shift.  I don’t remember the day of the week, but I was sitting talking to one of the nurses when the call came in over the radio.  Code 3 (that means lights and sirens).  Cardiac arrest.  We put our team together and got ready for their arrival.  It feels weird to tell you that this is routine, but it is. Then EMS arrived.

I let my team get to work while I got the story from the paramedic.  They had been called to the man’s house because he woke up with chest pain.  By the time they got there he was already feeling better, but his wife insisted he come in.  He was joking with her and giving her a hard time for not letting him sleep when they rolled him out of the house.  Everything looked good.  Then, about halfway in, he suddenly looked pale and became sweaty.  He told them he couldn’t breathe and, just like that, he died. 

Now, of course, his official time of death wasn’t until about 45 minutes later when, despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t get his heart to start beating again.  It’s not like in the movies or on TV.  In real life, when you die, you typically stay dead.  The experience of working a code (what we call CPR in the hospital) is a bit like an out of body experience for me.  I’m so present, so in the moment, that my brain has no opportunity to think of anything else.  I have one goal and nothing else matters.  Then, when it’s over, the veil lifts and reality returns.

It was in that moment where my mind was trying to make sense of what just happened that the nurse working in triage came to tell me that his family is waiting in the family room. He’s an experienced nurse and he tells me that they’re incredibly confused.  They don’t understand what’s going on.  It hasn’t even occurred to them that he died.  The last time they saw my patient he was laughing and joking with paramedics.  He was very much alive.

I take a deep breath and step into the family room.  I’m immediately met with confusion and anger from the family.  “Are you in charge here?” his daughter asks, “I don’t care what the COVID protocols are…” Then she sees my face.  She can tell that there’s more going on here, and that it’s probably not good news.  That’s the moment I can see her brain make the connection.  Suddenly the anger fades and the familiar look of fear and hope crosses her face. She sits.  They wait.  There is no grief in this room, not yet.

There’s an art to these conversations.  You begin by asking who’s present?  What do they already know?  The formalities help you know to whom you should direct your attention and where you should begin the story of what happened.  You want to tell them the details, not only because you want them to know you tried, but also because you ride that wave of hope in that little windowless room.  You know that, once you say the words, once you tell them he’s dead, all that hope falls away and the grief comes roaring in.  It feels a little like being flushed down a drain.  After that all you can do is sit and listen.

I used to dread these moments.  I used to fear their rawness.  I used to blame myself for not doing more.  I used to think that my inability to save their loved one was the cause of their pain, but, of course, that’s not true.  If that was the cause, the pain would have been there when I walked in the door.  I had already failed to save my patient.  He had died over an hour before I walked into that room.  His death and my inability to save him had not caused their grief. 

Their grief was caused by all of the thoughts that flooded their brains when they heard the words “he died.”  Until then their brains had been thinking thoughts of hope even though the event of his death had already happened. Our brains like to try to protect us up to the point it’s impossible in the face of the truth. After that it’s all of the thoughts about what life means without him that cause the grief.

I’m not telling you this story to suggest that you should not feel grief at the death of a loved one.  I think of grief as the balance of love and its depth is directly proportional to the depth of love for the person who died. 

Grief is as natural to our human lives as breathing.  I’m sharing this with you to simply demonstrate that it’s the thoughts in the brain that cause the feeling and that is true of any emotion you’re experiencing.  That means you are not powerless in the face of your feelings. If you’d like to learn more, I’d love to work with you.