What It Feels Like To Watch A Loved One Wither Away

Deterioration is progressive, but it doesn’t have to be terminal.

woman crying Getty

By Alex Duffield 

When you think of the word deteriorate, what comes to mind?

A flower slowly wilting from lack of water and nutrients? A house slowly losing its paint and shingles as a result of rain and snow? The hole in the knee of your favorite jeans that seems to grow and grow with each wear?

To me, the word deterioration has always had a very physical connotation attached to it.

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If something was deteriorating, I’ve always presumed I could physically see it withering away.

Some say that as humans, we naturally deteriorate with age. We become frail as we grow old and our bodies just aren’t able to handle what life throws at us the same way we used to.  

I think it’s safe to say that any grandchild can attest to the emotional pain that accompanies watching your grandparents slowly drift away from the memory you had of them chasing you around as a child.

As accurate as these visual depictions and memories of deterioration may be, I have recently come to learn that saying “a person is deteriorating” can have a whole other meaning that is often overlooked.  


If you’ve ever had someone near and dear to you be diagnosed with a terminal illness, you’ll know exactly what I am referring to.

There’s something utterly terrifying about being told that you have X days to live.

Depression and disease have one hell of a positive correlation, and their relationship is just as much undeniable and is it inevitable.

No, thankfully I cannot say that I have personally had the “your days are numbered” speech delivered to me, but I know and love someone who has. And as a result, I have witnessed the emotional deterioration that has followed.

At first, the victim tries to put up a strong front and whether this strength is rooted in denial or just absolute disbelief is a differentiation I have yet to understand.


Unfortunately, you can only be told so many times that you are in everyone’s thoughts and prayers before the phrase loses its meaning.

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It is at that tipping point that the bitterness, frustration, and isolation begins. Well obviously, Alex, who the f*** would be happy about being told they are going to die?

As a child, grandchild, sibling, friend to this person, the feeling of helplessness that evolves is one that I still struggle to put into words.

This person who you have loved, and has loved you, is not the same. They are mean and they are rude, but it is because they are angry.

They’ve lost their appreciation for life and lost their appreciation for you, but it’s because they’ve lost their purpose.


The phrase “I’m sick” has become more than just an explanation, it’s become a justification and an excuse. They have emotionally removed themselves from you, and for every 5 minutes that you receive a glimpse their old self, 5 days of this new empty shell of a person returns.

Of course you still love them and care about them, because that’s what unconditional love entails.

But the fact they are no longer the person you used to know causes more emotional turmoil than I can describe.

They have become numb and now this numbness has overcome you. It feels as though they are already gone.

Within the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to witness all the above happen.


By no means do I feel as though my situation is deserving of a pity party, but instead the purpose of this article is to show all the other children, grandchildren, siblings, friends that they aren’t the only ones falling victim to this cursed bystander role.

There isn’t anything you can do or say that will make the situation better, or to console the other person. In fact, saying or doing anything will only make it worse.

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It’s moments like this when silence speaks volumes. The worst part? You can’t call this person out on the deterioration because it isn’t their fault.


I wouldn’t be able to count on 100 pairs of hands the number of times I have had to bite my tongue to prevent me from saying, “You can’t act this way; it’s not fair.” 

No it’s not fair, not just how you’re being treated, but also that these are the cards they have been dealt. They aren’t who they used to be given all they have been through, and wrapping your head around that logic is easier said than done.

So what can you do then?


You can hope and you can try, because although their hope and their willingness to try has deteriorated, yours hasn’t and can’t.

A withering flower just needs some more water and sunlight to hold onto those last few petals. A few more shingles and a new coat of paint are all it takes to make a home look new again. Those jeans just need a patch, and some thread to make it on to next season.

Deterioration is progressive, but it doesn’t have to be terminal.

You are that water, those shingles, and that patch.

And you can’t forget it.

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Alex Duffield is a writer whose work focuses on relationships, lifestyle, and self-care topics. Visit their author profile on Unwritten for more.