The Best Way to Lose Someone You Love

My father died four years ago.

He was on a cruise for his 70th birthday with my mother and other members of our family. We managed to catch him on the phone just as the ship was leaving port. My kids told him about the Halloween costumes they’d gotten that evening. We all wished him ‘Happy Birthday’ and told him that we loved him and hung up. We went about our evening while my parents enjoyed a nice dinner, walked around the ship, and then went to bed.

My father never woke up.
That was it.
One breath here, the next hereafter.
Some time during the night, in the span of an instant, he ceased to live.
The absolute finality of it all still steals the air from my chest on many days.

One of the first things my mom said when she called from the ship to tell me, was that my father “had a beautiful death.” I knew what she meant; that the quickness felt like a blessing, and in some ways it was. But in other ways it’s been a gaping wound that just won’t close: the ever-present feeling that you were robbed of anything resembling a real goodbye. The unfinished-ness you’re left with is something words can’t accurately quantify. 

As we gathered for his funeral, I remember lots of well-meaning people speaking words they believed would be comforting to me:

“Thank God you didn’t have to see him suffer.”
“That’s the way to go!”
“He died happy.”

“No.” I’d think to myself. “He died in his sleep—with no warning, no inkling his life was ending; no way to prepare, no way to tie-up the loose ends of his life, no chance to speak the words he wanted to leave us all with, no time to hear how loved he was. He just—left.” It may have been a quick and painless death but it was death; my father’s death. It was the end of my hero, and finding a really bright spot in it wasn’t and isn’t really possible.

As a pastor, I’ve sat in emergency rooms and around hospice beds, with distraught families who’ve watched their loved ones wasting away over months from sickness or succumbing quickly to catastrophic injury. Yes, they may have had time for the goodbyes I never experienced and still covet, but in exchange for them, they had to see people who they lived with and adored, deteriorate before their eyes. They had to see images of them that were difficult to wipe from their minds.

Yes, I have this horrible suddenness to contend with, but I also only have memories of my father being fully alive. The last time I saw him he was himself; laughing and loud and well—and I treasure that time. Our last hug was at the airport, and it was beautifully ordinary. Often I’ll wish to have had a chance to speak with him for a few more seconds or to have been able to send him off with the closure of some well-chosen words—but there’s no way I could have that, and still have him whole and healthy the last time I saw him. Death doesn’t let you have everything you want.

And that’s the cruel truth that those of us who’ve lost someone we love dearly, all come to know: there is no good way to lose them. Whether their passing is sudden or protracted, you never feel ready and you never have things exactly the way you want them, because no matter the circumstances you are left with the same result—a separation you didn’t want from someone you didn’t want to see leave yet. You either end up cheated out of a proper farewell or burdened with seeing them sick or suffering, and frankly either of those options is uniquely terrible. That’s why they call it loss, because there is a profound subtraction taking place, and there is no way to come through that experience unscathed. Either way it’s going to leave a mark.

I still can’t fully allow myself to declare that my father had a beautiful death, but he did have a beautiful life, and I suppose that’s why there was no way to have total peace with seeing it end, no matter how it happened. This was simply the unique and precise way that he left the planet, and there are both blessings and burdens that come with it. All of us who grieve have those two things to hold in tandem.

There is no perfect way to say goodbye to people we treasure. The only perfect way to lose someone you love—is not to lose them.

And so, whatever the circumstances of your losing and however you’re feeling the burden of that separation, know that the incompleteness you feel is normal. Have patience with yourself and don’t fight the frustration you feel—you’re doing the best that you can. We all are.

Be greatly encouraged today.



35 thoughts on “The Best Way to Lose Someone You Love

  1. Beautifully said and very true. There is no easy way to let go of the love attached to seeing, talking with and spending time with someone who matters in your life. There is no “better way” for a profound loss. This is why the precious gift of memory is so important. And why losing that gift is such a deep deficit. The love stays, the feelings stay, the memories of them stay and that is the blessing we are left with for as long as we are blessed with memory. Thanks be to God!

  2. What beautiful words John, thank you. Both of my parents suffered from dementia before their deaths. I had convinced myself that I accepted that I lost my parents before I actually lost them. I was so wrong. No matter what death is a sucker punch you can’t protect yourself from.


  3. I lost one parent each way- my mother suffering a year with pancreatic cancer and my father with a bizarre incident after surgery- completely unexpected. I held my mom as she breathes her last and I agonized that I couldn’t for my dad. Still brings me to tears.
    What u have learned that I for no reason that I know is that my parents- while not perfect- were good and humble people. They lived their children beyond measure including my sister who has many disabilities, they planned for her future, they poured their lives into children over decades of public school teaching and they loved each other well. And so my grief is here decades later but so is the blessing. Live with both.

  4. This is so true and beautifully said. I have felt all these emotions, had all these thoughts so appreciate you putting it so well. In less than 24 hrs I lost both parents, one from a protracted illness, the other from broken heart syndrome. One was not any easier than the other. I have always said that my siblings and I got pushed to the head of the line then. It still stings but also for us the comfort that they were together and my mother was taking care of our dad made it better. I am thankful that we all made the effort to let each other know at every oportunity how we felt. My kids used to give me a hard time because I will never hang up without an I love you and I never leave without an I love you, they understand now and they don’t and their children don’t sign off without an I love you. Anyway thanks for this post, because the scar is still there 26 yrs later. Peace and Love

  5. Great words of encouragement John

    Many years ago I almost lost my wife to cancer, thru much harship and diligence in seeking out competent medical for her we grew together. It created a closer relationship .
    I lost my Day when i came back from the military on a tour of duty and he too died in his sleep , greeted the family , smiled and went to sleep in his chair with a smile.
    I never really had a relationship with him as he was a full blown alcholic from the war s and never really spent much time at home , mostly with his friends at the bar on a regular basis. or at work . I had become a christian and God thru people had encouraged me to make peace and get things right with him before he died. I was really glad I did .
    Forgiveness is essential and forgetting the past and looking on to the future is essential to a really good relationship. this with anything in life.
    To really forgive you must really have peace with god and really trust he will take care of all wrongs and make them right.
    Jesus Christ showed us this at the Cross of Calvary when in spite or the hatred from mankind he shouted out in his last effort to Forgive them as they Know not what they do. , this is true forgiveness. Taking on the sins of mankind and forgiving the rebellion and hatred from the evil hearts of mankind.
    This is why we need to Forgive, So when this happens we have peace to know all is well.
    Forgiveness is the beginning of a successful relationship.
    I m Sorry is the next step ( true repentance ) Knowing I, You, Me, us , we sent jesus christ to the cross to die. Not just someone else , Taking responsibility for ourselves, my own sin, your own sin, the actions, thoughts, you have or commit on a daily basis.
    Live Long and happy as you have this peace in Jesus Christ Savior to the World

  6. What loving words.

    The Benedictines have a practice “memento mori” in which they meditate five minutes a day in their own deaths. Keeps us prepared, more or less.

  7. When God took my Dad home, I did not understand why he was taken one brain cell at a time. (Alzheimer’s) Mom spent her whole life dealing with depression, but refused medication as that was seen as a sign of weakness. She was the most horrible, vindictive, manipulative person I ever knew because of this. Somehow, I knew that I would never get to see the real person underneath until we met in heaven. Then the blessing of Alzheimer’s relaxed her and she forgot how to be bitter. For the first time in my life I got to see my mother as she really was. Those last few months were a true blessing.

    God takes us all in his wisdom. Sometimes we get to understand it, but those times are few I think. May our Father bless you richly John.

  8. John, I have lost both parents to terminal illnesses and my husband (3 short years ago) quite suddenly. I have seen both sides of this coin and understand all too well. My Father was the first to pass and though it has taken me well over 25 years, I can finally look back and see some good that came from his journey through illness. The way he handled it touched and changed many people. I am still looking for some speck of “good” in the other 2 losses. I hope that some day I will be able to see that. I now that if nothing else it has made and is making me a stronger person. You cannot endure what feels like the fires of hell and not come out stronger. Those of us touched by greif and loss need to share with each other and continue to help pull each other through. Thank you for sharing your experience. It always helps to know there are others. May your walk with grief be a bit easier each day.

    • Well put, and May your journey through grief get easier each day. Since my husband and I have lost our parents and step parents who we dearly loved I can say in respect to them, it does get easier but the grief is never far away. I talk to the lot of them all the time though. You know, Dad did you see what your son did, when my husband does something. So we keep them alive by keeping them in our conversation. Anyway Peace to you.

  9. My heart is breaking as I write this. Only yesterday we left the radiogist’ office where he described the treatment our dearly loved 23 year old granddaughter will begin for stage 4 brain cancer. My faith in God is strong, but I’m finding it hard to trust His will even as I know He will be there to help us along the way. What I do know, is that our granddaughter has never doubted for one moment she is loved. She wants to take a cruise as soon as the chemo and radiation allow. Her doctors say that will be possible, and that is one way I have seen God’s love for us: We downsized our home just prior to this occurrence, and our house sold after 7 days on the market allowing us to have the extra money to pay for a cruise for our family. She has been so strong for all of us thus far, but I fear the days ahead from the bottom of my being. As you indicated, God doesn’t give us a choice in death. That must be because He knows we wouldn’t be able to make that choice.

    • Know that my prayers and I am sure the whole community here are with you and your granddaughter and your family. Peace and Love

    • My prayers are with your precious granddaughter and your whole family. There are no words adequate to express my heartbreak for you. It is good that you have the strength of your faith.

      To each of you on this page, your stories of loss are also heart wrenching. I wish you peace and strength.

      • Thank you so much. Our granddaughter is such an inspiration to us. She is handling all of this with such courage, it can only be God given. We are so thankful.

  10. In a conversation with a friend I told her how sorry I was that she never got to say good-bye to her mom, her mom never made it to the hospital but passed away on the way there……………my heart was so heavy for her. She in turn looked at me and said how sorry she was that I had to watch my mom suffer as she lay in her hospital bed, she also said her heart was so heavy for me. Our perspectives are all different……….

  11. My Mom had a sudden, catastrophic brain haemorrhage sixteen years ago this August. Although she was deeply unconscious almost immediately, and never regained consciousness before dying five days later, I at least had the opportunity to tell her everything that was on my mind and in my heart – even if she couldn’t hear me or comprehend my words.

    She was 61.

    My Dad died ten years ago last October; he had been sliding into dementia before Mom died. One of our last phone conversations, Mom had told me she was worried about Dad; that meant, in Mom-code, she was worried sick about him and thought there was something really wrong.

    He had a slow and quite gentle decline, the dementia taking more and more of him away from us, but he was quite happy and at peace and looked after by people who knew him. We lived in a small community, so the matron of the nursing home and some of the staff knew him well, had known him for 30 years. Many of the other residents – those who had their marbles! – knew him, too. He saw my brother daily, even if just for a few moments while he delivered the newspapers to the home.

    The last time I saw Dad, he actually walked me to the door and hugged me goodbye. I think he knew, then, that it was goodbye. He died peacefully in his sleep about five months later; I’d booked a flight home to celebrate his 80th birthday the morning before. Oddly enough, the day my Mom collapsed, I’d booked a train ticket to go home for her birthday that morning. I called home and asked to speak to my brother to make arrangements for my surprise trip, and the last word my Mom said to me was ‘Okay!’

    Now I’m all snotty and red-eyed and can’t remember the point I was trying to make. I think mostly it would be that I agree, you never have the ending you want when a loved one leaves, whether you are prepared for it or not.

    Also my adopted aunt, Doris, had what I consider the perfect death. She was at bingo, with her friend Malcolm, and she was laughing uproariously at a joke someone had told her, and – boom. Lights out, mid-laugh, just like that. Not dissimilar to my friend’s mother, who left at a great age, after a family brunch and mimosas, in the space of time it took my friend’s sister to walk around the car to help her fasten her seatbelt. The last photos of her from that brunch are beautiful, full of love and happiness, and so very bittersweet.

  12. When I hear of a death, I share this poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye:
    “Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry;
    I am not there. I did not die. ”

    My family is long-lived, so I was over 30 when I saw my first death and funeral. My grandmother had gall bladder cancer and died 6 months after diagnosis. She was my mother. I mean, I had a mother, who was there and mothered me. But my grandmother taught me everything I know about kindness, compassion, how to listen. She was the most truly good person I have ever met. That’s just how she was, full of love for everyone; it was incidental that she was also Christian. It’s been 25 years and I miss her as if it was yesterday. (I’m tearing up just telling you all this.) It was hard to see her sick; she said she had no pain, so that was some comfort. Fortunately(?), death came quickly and easily and she just slipped away on Monday morning.
    Since then I have worked as a nursing aide, in a nursing home. In 3 years, I saw 50 deaths. Each time it was a blessed relief–from pain, from loss of dignity, from dementia or Alzheimers. And even though I was not related to any of them, it was still a profound experience. I did post mortem care for many of them, washing them and putting on a clean gown for the funeral director to take the body. I consider it an honor.
    It is NEVER easy to lose a loved one, no matter how they die. I watched my grandmother do it, so the last memories I have of her are so NOT a representation of her life. I didn’t see my grandfather die, so I easily remember him as he was in life. I remember my grandmother in life; those memories are a resource for joy and lessons still. And I can talk to her…without calling long distance. Or calling a real LONG distance, depending on how you look at it.
    Death, the end of this life, is inevitable. No one has escaped it yet. But knowing that doesn’t make loss bearable.

  13. I still miss my bi Daddy after 26 years since he passed. Right before he passed, we were lying together in his hospital bed and he took my hand and said, that death is an end to a life, not a relationship. My son when he was 7 years old said to me, when I was remembering with tears of a couple of a close people in my life that died, told me, as long as they are in my heart and memories, they are not really gone.

    • I believe what your son said. I see or hear my loved ones in some very strange places, my husband was in a coma in a hospital in Mexico, and while sitting beside his bed I clearly heard and felt my Mom and Dad. I feel my sister all the time, I have a bluebird that will perch outside my kitchen window, I am convinced, since we called ourselves the bluebirds, that it is a sign she is still with me. I believe if we will open ourselves up that there are wonderful ways we are reminded of our loved ones. Peace

  14. I think of my friend who lost his daughter to drugs and self-destruction, and I know that the choice between sudden and slow doesn’t even begin to probe the depths of the power of our enemy, Death. My friend struggles through this time of year, when his daughter left him, more or less holding himself together, but oh, so raw just below the surface. It breaks my heart.

    I am sitting here, in tears, thinking of his loss – glad that my own have never cut me to the core like that; glad that my own children, perhaps in part due to his wise counsel, are in a better place; glad that I do not have to look forward to another bleak March like his will always be.

    When my mother died, less than a year after my friend lost his daughter, I was struck with how different it was to have had the chance to say good bye, but more, to have a sense that she had lived out her life. Mine was a heartfelt, “God speed.”, his, a broken, “I’ll never stop missing you.”

  15. Dear John,
    I have kept everything you have written about your father, death , and grief. My husband died at about the same time, exactly the same way. You have been able to articulate my feelings in ways that free me. I have the sense of someone sitting quietly next to me saying, “Me too..” with no other words necessary. Thank you for the gift.

  16. Thanks John.

    I lost my Mom very suddenly through suicide when I was in my late twenties. I have no words to fully explain how that felt, it was horrible. She had suffered from untreated mental illness, in a nut shell, for most of her life. My sister and i were basically raised by a mentally unstable mom. Our parents divorced when I was 7.
    Then a year and a half later, my husband’s mother committed suicide…she was terminally (physically) ill but we didn’t see this outcome coming, no one had. We were once again in shock, guilt, heartbroken, angry even. Both our Moms…both our 3 children’s grandmothers…the dread of how to even explain that to your children as they become older and ask questions. Our two oldest know, our youngest doesn’t yet.
    I have had to deal with my own issues of anxiety and depression for a long time as well; though I am in a pretty stable part of my life now, thank God. That of course, takes a lot of work, and there are setbacks sometimes. But I know how to ask for help and reach out. I wish my Mom and mother in law had as well. I always wish we could have had more closure. But, by God’s mysterious grace, he has let me know (and my sister too, though we physically live an ocean apart) through several different very powerful instances that he is taking care of my Mom, he is with her. That is (mostly) all I needed to know.
    One of the most painful things that was said (by a close friend, so it hurt even more) when my mom died, was the implication that because she had taken her own life, she probably was not in Heaven… and if I thought differently, I was “in danger of creating your own theology.”
    It took me years to undo that myth, and what it (unjustly) implies about God. Thankfully, another friend reassured me that very same day of how big God’s mercy is. And that all of us are creating our own “theologies” all the time…

    All I can say is that God, indeed, is full of grace, infinite mystery, mercy and love. The pieces of darkness, if I cannot unravel them and move through and past them, I just have to try my best to let them go, and let them be. It is a strange dance of accepting and letting go; and of trying to embrace the “now” and “here” of every day.

  17. My mother passed away at the age of 69 of a massive heart attack while babysitting with my dad at our home. Losing her so fast was a knife in my heart for a long time.

  18. Having lost both my parents in the last 9 months, I know one is never prepared for the final moment. It was a gift not to know when or how; it was also painful not knowing, not being there. And it was a gift not to be present, not to feel even more responsible somehow, that I should’ve done more to extend their lives. The timing of your message is a gift John. Thank you.

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