President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to leave the campaign trail to visit his dying grandmother may have been difficult in the short run: it came less than two weeks before election day. But the decision is almost certain to help him now as he comes to terms with her death.
Research from The FatherLoss Survey, which I conducted for my book, FatherLoss, indicates that taking the time to connect with a dying loved one in the last days of his or her life promotes successful grieving.
In the survey of 300 men whose fathers had died, only 40 percent said they had a chance to directly say good-bye to in the days or weeks before their father’s death. But among those who did say good-bye, 82 percent that it helped them in their subsequent grieving.
The final good-bye is important in several ways. First, the surviving person often gets a chance to see that the dying person has accepted his or her mortality. One man I interviewed, a mechanic who was 36 when his father died, talked with his dad in the final days about the afterlife. He learned that his father expected after his death to go through a “doorway” into eternal love and acceptance.
The son said later: “When he died, I was sad, yet I felt a sense of peace knowing that he wanted us to let him go into that doorway. He looked forward to death, not in a fatalistic suicidal way, but as more of an adventure into the great beyond.”
Another opportunity at the final good-bye is giving and receiving a blessing from the dying person. Sen. Obama’s grandmother helped raise him, and Obama undoubtedly wants her to know for sure that she was instrumental in bringing him to the brink of the presidency. Meanwhile, it’s likely that he would want to hear from her that no matter what happened in the election, she is proud of him and who he has become.
Those kinds of exchanges often take place at good-byes – and they make a difference. One man I interviewed for FatherLoss, who had struggled in his relationship with his father throughout his life, recalled their last meeting.
At that meeting, in the hospital, the father said to his 34-year-old son: “You’ve got a beautiful wife, and a gorgeous child. You’ve got a good life. You’re going to be fine.” He then kissed his son and asked him to leave. A couple of hours later, the father died.
Later, the son told me that had that last encounter not occurred, he (the son) would “probably have doubted a lot of things. I would have wondered if he was still angry. But I never worried about it… (The last good-bye) reduced my mourning to the sadness of losing him.”
Obama, by visiting his dying grandmother last month, may have lost a couple of days on the campaign trail, but he will likely gain a significant measure of peace from the decision.
Neil Chethik is executive editor of Open to Hope Foundation, and author of FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come To Terms With the Deaths of Their Dads (Hyperion). Reach him atwww.NeilChethik.com.