Unexpected uncle death
January 1, 2017 2:41 PM   Subscribe

My uncle died several months ago unexpectedly. I was operating under the belief that it was a heroin overdose or suicide. I finally got the autopsy results that show he actually died from a cardiac event and he was a lot sicker than I knew. I'm having trouble processing this.

He was only 56. He didn't show up to my wedding so my other uncle who is a cop went to his place and found him there. It looked like he'd been dead for about a week. This is in rural Vermont and he was very much a loner so no one noticed his absence.

I'm struggling because I'd really come to terms with his suicide. He was in terrible health and had a gigantic non-healing wound on his stomach from a hernia surgery that was causing him immense amounts of pain. He has been a sober alcoholic for 20 years and recently started drinking again. He was addicted to pain pills and heroin even though he told me he was selling most of his prescribed Percocet because it wasn't helping him. He had been so sad and in pain for such a long time that I feel like I understood why he would take his own life, and I was relieved that he didn't have to suffer anymore. He had majorly strained relationships with his siblings and his mother due to his drug use but he has always been nothing but loving and wonderful to me. I was so happy he was at peace.

Then I get the autopsy report that showed that he died of an aneurysm. He also had awful kidneys, a fatty liver, and messed up bowels. This was all causing him so much pain. The toxology reports showed no heroin but many pain meds in his system, none at dangerous levels , especially for a dependent user like him.

This knowledge has turned me on my head. It kills me that he was so brave and he wanted to keep living and fighting but instead his body gave out. And he still wanted to come to my wedding even though he wasn't good in social situations, I know this because we texted often and he told me how excited he was.

I'm just looking for someone who might understand why this upsets me, and might say something to make me feel better. That is why I'm posting this. My husband and sister think it's good that he didn't commit suicide but I feel like it's wrong wrong wrong and he shouldn't have died.
posted by pintapicasso to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry for your loss.

I would also be having a reaction like you. With suicide, there's at least some agency. A decision to get out, even if it's a decision people make when their POV is so distorted and they don't see other options. But, like you said, his decision was to live even though he was in poor health and in a lot of pain.

A death that's premature, or accidental, or seems like it could have been preventable is always extra hard to deal with. It's just not fair. Try to focus on what a joy you were to him. Despite his estrangement from a lot of your family, your relationship was strong and he was excited to celebrate your wedding with you. You must have been a great comfort to him as well as being a source of happiness. Your love and concern for him likely got him through a lot of tough times. We don't get to choose how much time we get and many deaths have tragic aspects that make them even more challenging to mourn. But, try to remember how much he loved you and how upset he'd be that your experience of his death is so painful for you. Celebrate his life and memory by remebering all of his good and sweet characteristics. I wish you peace as you grieve. This life can be so hard.
posted by quince at 3:06 PM on January 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

I am so sorry for your loss of your uncle. He does sound like a great guy and as you say, very brave.

Your feelings are really normal, by the way. I am not saying this to discount them, just that you are grieving and these types of feelings are a very common aspect of grief.

Can you go to a grief counsellor? I'd recommend someone who specializes in that just because it is slightly different than other counselling needs. They can help you with the grieving process and just be a nonjudgmental sounding board for you.

And also, I remember one of your recent questions...please just know that multiple experiences of loss tend to be exponential rather than just additional. You have been through a lot lately, and you may also be feeling a magnification of everything with this new sad and sudden loss.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:12 PM on January 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm so very sorry. You were coming to terms with a death by suicide of someone you love, and now the wound is ripped open again now that you know death wasn't his choice and there were aspects of his life he didn't disclose to you. This is a different kind of grief you need to work through from scratch, and it's completely understandable that you're having a hard time with it.

I don't know if this brings you any comfort but I had a terminally ill aunt who hid the amount of pain she was in from her doctors so that she could die with dignity at home. She absolutely didn't want to die, but if she was going to, she really didn't want to die isolated in a hospital.

Now, your uncle, if he was making plans to be there on your wedding day, likely did not see death coming so soon, but he was able to pass away at home and his suffering is over. He loved you very much, especially since you accepted him exactly as he was. How lucky he was to have someone who loved him through and through. That is something people hope for their whole lives. I imagine that while he would have wanted more time, but he was in an awful lot of pain, and would want you to remember the good things he did in life and look forward to your new future with your husband.
posted by Pearl928 at 4:00 PM on January 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this, and for the double-whammy of having grieved your uncle's death in one way and now having to grieved it in another.

Despite all of his struggles, it's clear that your uncle was a loving presence in your life and was loved in return -- really, this is the most essential thing any of us can aspire to in our time on earth. Perhaps it would give you some comfort to think of ways you might be able to explicitly honor the best part of him that you would like to see live on in the world in some way. The first thing that popped into my head was planting a tree in his honor in a local park, but of course there may be other things that would be more specific to who your uncle was.

Remember to be kind to yourself as you go through this process.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 5:49 PM on January 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

It kills me that he was so brave and he wanted to keep living and fighting

This POV colours your whole grief. As gently as possible, it also seems like a massive and unfounded projection on your part. There is a really wide gap between taking your own life and fighting for life at any cost. Most of us reside somewhere inbetween in a state of apathy.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:54 PM on January 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

I suppose you feel worse because this was a person you loved and if he had wanted to die you were prepared to be at peace with his decision, which somewhat ameliorated your sadness at his death or the natural feelings of anger and bargaining everyone experiences around death. Finding out that he did not commit suicide has taken away that comfort you had that he was at peace where he wanted to be and instead has thrown you into the grief of someone who has less resolution than they thought. Also I find that when I am very happy, as I imagine you are after your wedding, I feel other people's pain more keenly. Because in that moment I feel like happiness is available in the world and I want everyone to have it. Maybe it's a kind of survivors guilt you are feeling now, in a way.

I'm not sure I'm making you feel better but I totally understand why this has affected you the way it has. I think that life is complex and sometimes it throws things at you and you just have to ride them out, but I am like you and find it comforting to understand my own emotions. I don't have to control or change them but I like to be in touch with them. I need to be to move on, in fact.

Peace to your family, in time you will be comforted that your uncle and you loved each other and he wanted this happiness for you.
posted by fshgrl at 6:37 PM on January 1, 2017

I'm not sure but it sounds like you are accidentally or on purpose empathizing with his experience of illness and pain and death. Empathy can be a beautiful and useful human impulse, but in this case, it's not helping him or you. It maybe compassion, in the traditional sense, you are suffering with him, which can be an act of love for someone who feels alone in their pain, but not a very helpful exercise here.

It's so hard when people are gone. I think the impulse of wanting to do something for them, anything, is so kind but we often misdirect it. Sharing his suffering (as you imagine it) can feel like a way to still be with or be of service to someone you really don't want to be gone. But it's a false friend.

If what I'm describing sounds relevant at all, Byron Katie's 'Loving What Is' helped me a lot. You can't really know what your uncle experienced, how he experienced it, how he understood it. This is all in your mind. Her book gave me something to do, a way to get out of that home of falling into someone else's imagined experience. But another novel I read years later, that I mostly didn't love, captured the experience very well: "There is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weights so heavy as the pain one feels for someone, with someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes."

This can be a way of feeling still connected to him and a way of mourning him, but it tortures you emotionally and doesn't actually do anything to help him, or be with him.

I don't know. Hope that helps. Hand in there, some things just have to be ridden out and survived.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:40 PM on January 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The way you describe your emotions sound like what you're processing is a sense of guilt, or possibly even shame. Believing he died from suicide or an accidental overdose would mean that there was nothing you could have done - he was in pain and sorrow over his head, and he chose to take control of it. Assuming you believe that that choice is all on him and an intervention wouldn't have made anything better for him (and many people would disagree with that belief, fwiw), you were off the hook. By that metric, if he wanted to live and was simply unhealthy, there was more you could have done - visited more, checked in with him more often, followed up with his doctors about proper care -- even just changing the way your conversations went when you did speak with him. It may feel like you loved him and you let him down.

This is not on you, though, any more than it would be on any of your relatives who would be feeling the same sense of horror and self-blame if things were reversed and they thought it was a cardiac arrest and it turned out to be suicide. It sounds like you are at peace with the idea of suicide as a value-neutral door out of suffering, but for many people it is anything but - it is something they feel they have a responsibility to prevent if at all humanly possible. I'm guessing you not only have had conversations about that scenario with enough of your loved ones that you already know your responses to them -- I would suggest using those responses on yourself, now. He was taken by illness - he was in terrible health. I am sure his doctors would say it was still an (unexpected, but) predictable outcome. And more than that, all the things that for you made a choice to end it all make sense, were still present. He was in pain. He was in poor health. He was depressed. His death was still a release from those things.

The death of someone you love is supposed to make you feel unmoored and helpless. Death isn't something most people get to - or want to - choose for themselves. It's an awful fact of this life that eventually it ends, whether we're ready or not. Life's fragility is where most great art comes from, most great philosophy, and an awful lot of therapy visits. I wouldn't kick yourself or feel surprised that this is hitting you where you live where before you were at peace. What you're feeling now is grieving, and that's good.

You might want to take some time, when you're ready, to explore why you were more at peace with his death when you thought it was self-imposed. Letting go of control, and the sense that the world makes sense and can be controlled if we only pay attention, is a hard lesson to learn - but it may help you down the road. Life is unpredictable and messy and we really can't control what it will hand any of us. Learning to roll with the unexpected is probably a healthier way forward in the long run.
posted by Mchelly at 9:22 PM on January 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

I lost someone dear to me earlier this year. Many months had passed before we got the autopsy results. The way she died wasn't at all what I had prepared myself for. Turns out what I thought was beyond her control (infection) was actually a result of her actions (an already unwell person taking too many sleeping pills and opiates). It opened up a whole new world of "What if?" questions for me. It threw me because I had already reconciled her death in a certain way and now there were a whole bunch of previously unconsidered ways her death could have been avoided. I thought about that a lot and it was devastating to realize - each and every time my mind went down that rabbit hole - that there was absolutely no changing the outcome. That's a helpless feeling.
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:06 AM on January 2, 2017

This may sound insensitive (or might be helpful?), but building on DarlingBri's comment , I would go so far as to say he did choose to die, or at least to hasten the end of his clearly unbearable life. A 20 year sober alcoholic with these types of health issues knows full well what drinking again will do to him. He also knows that it will make the pain and suckiness during his final months (or years) more bearable. He probably thought he'd make it to your wedding, but I doubt he was expecting to live to 80 - nor did he want to.

My dad did the same thing - he had a ton of (self-inflicted through drinking and smoking) health issues and was told "unless you stop smoking, you have a year to live". He did not stop and was dead within a year. I resented him for it of course, but it's such an understandable choice. His life sucked. He chose the way he knew.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've reread all of your answers over and over. They gave me new things to think about. It's exactly what I needed and wanted. Thank you.
posted by pintapicasso at 4:52 PM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

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