Cancer Widower – I never thought I’d be describing myself as that. But at 4:50pm on 8th October 2015 my status as Husband slipped away from me, along with the woman I loved, and I joined the wretched ranks of millions who live in the shadow of cancer and its unstoppable trail of misery and fatality. On the front of the leaflet handed to me by a very caring hospice nurse was the quote “Grief is the price we pay for love, it is the cost of commitment”. A price worth paying in my book - I would just have to find the strength to deal with it.
PALLIATIVE CARE AT HOME
My wife’s name was Beata. She was just 37 years old when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, shattering our happiness in a heartbeat. Sadly, as is usually the case with ovarian cancer, it had already spread when it was detected, so Beata’s prognosis was poor from the outset. Despite this, she did everything she could to try to fight her illness, showing the most amazing strength and determination during her three year battle, but in the end she eventually ran out of options and was referred for palliative care.This was a pivotal moment. After three years of trying to stay positive and never giving up hope, we were finally forced to admit that all hope was gone. It was so desperately hard to accept and the feelings of disbelief and denial lingered for some time. We couldn’t believe that there really was nothing that could be done to help her and that such a beautiful, young life like this had to be wasted. She still looked so young and healthy on the outside.
We had a hospital bed installed at home, as I wanted to care for her myself for as long as possible and to try to keep fighting the cancer while Beata still had the strength. I looked after her as best as I could with the help of her mum and her sister. It was very distressing watching her deteriorate and there was a point when I felt that her spirit had already died – she was no longer herself, she no longer warmed people’s hearts with her beautiful smile and excitement about the wonders of life and she no longer showed the love and affection that I had appreciated so much.
The district nurses had fitted her with a syringe driver to drip feed medication but progressively her symptoms got worse and became too difficult to control at home. We reluctantly agreed that it would be best if Beata was admitted to a hospice.
MOVING TO A HOSPICE We were very lucky to get a bed at the local Princess Alice Hospice within a couple of days and an ambulance was called to take us there. Rather insensitively the ambulance driver asked “Is this for respite or no return?”! Beata was noticeably anxious about leaving the house for the last time - she was hesitating and nervously collecting together things that she thought she might need - but she was extremely brave about it. I felt very emotional when we arrived at the hospice. I remember one of the hospice nurses giving me an understanding look and touching my arm sympathetically as I walked into the building.
Once settled into the room we immediately felt safe. Doctors and nurses busied around us and everything was being done to make Beata as comfortable as possible. It was a huge relief to be there and even Beata said “We were so lucky to get this”. Initially I stayed with her during the day and went home at night to be with my kids, but very soon I moved into the hospice, sleeping on a put-up bed in Beata’s room. I didn’t want to miss a moment with her and wanted to fulfil the promise that I’d made to her when she was first diagnosed with cancer – that I would be there with her every step of the way. I was even scared to pop out of the room to get a cup of tea in case anything happened.
The next two and a half weeks were like a rollercoaster ride. There were days at a time when she was barely awake or able to communicate and then suddenly she would find new strength and be sitting up chatting. I remember just a few days before she passed away she was eating chocolate ice cream, drinking coffee and brushing her teeth, but for two days before that she had been barely conscious. Every time her medication was increased it seemed to knock her out for a while but then she would regain control until her medication was increased again and then the cycle would repeat itself.
WAITING TO DIE
The care we received at the hospice was incredible. The nurses showed the most amazing sensitivity and compassion and were truly angels among all the sadness and despair. But it was so agonising seeing Beata in so much pain and discomfort and although we had access to some of the best palliative care in the world, nothing could take away all the pain. The hospice nurses said that young people often suffer from “total pain” – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional - and that death can be more drawn out as the body and mind aren’t ready for it.
Watching the person I love die slowly in front me of me was excruciating. The whole scenario of coming into a place where you just had to lie there and wait to die was hideous and the enormity of the situation impossible to comprehend. It was like someone saying to me “I’m going to kill your wife; I’m going to do it slowly so that she suffers as much as possible and I’m going to make you watch”.
Beata’s last words to me were “I love you too”. Two days later I was holding her hand and talking to her as she drew her last breath. I thought I would be strong and in control when this moment came, as we all knew it was going to happen and had been preparing for it for weeks, but when it actually happened it was like a tsunami. People were asking me questions but I couldn’t speak. My first feeling was immediate panic as the reality of the situation hit me - that I could never talk to her or hold her again; that she just didn’t exist anymore. Then I felt a massive surge of anger at how underserved it was. She had tried so desperately hard over the last three years to fight her illness and had so many unfulfilled hopes and dreams for the future – she deserved so much more.
I went home alone that evening, back to an empty house where the hospital bed still stood and medical paraphernalia still lay about the place. I felt so incredibly empty and alone.
COMING TO TERMS WITH MY LOSSOver the next few weeks I was overwhelmed with emotion. I felt numb, slow to process things and unable to make the simplest of decisions. Even choosing what clothes to wear was difficult and other ordinarily simple tasks felt daunting. The sadness and emptiness burrowed deep inside me and life felt like it had lost all purpose. But strongest of all the emotions was the sense of pity that I felt for Beata. A bereavement support lady at the hospice said that I was grieving for Beata’s loss as well as my own.
It’s a few months on now and while I’ve got a long way to go in the grieving process yet, I’ve reached the point where I feel in control of my emotions rather than my emotions controlling me. I’ve talked a lot about my feelings and experience, felt the pain of my loss, and accepted the sad truth that Beata can no longer be here to share my life with. A number of things have helped me to deal with my grief up to this point - I’d like to share some of those with you in the hope that you might find them helpful too.
1. Talking Really Helps
Some friends and family called and some visited, but others kept their distance for a while, not knowing if it would better to give me space to sort out my emotions. But I desperately wanted people to talk to – I felt so alone - so I appreciated every visitor and caller I had.
2. Friends and Family: Don’t Try to Make Things Better, Just Be ThereVarious people sent messages of sympathy and some tried to console me, but often these were just platitudes – words said with the best of intentions to try to alleviate my suffering, but actually sometimes making things worse. When people said to me “at least you had lots of happy times” it just reminded me of how much I’d lost. When people said “it’s early days yet”, it just emphasised what a long road of recovery I had ahead of me. I didn’t want people to try to make things better - that wasn’t possible - I just wanted them to be with me, to share my grief.
3. Keep MovingApparently Einstein once said “Life is like riding a bicycle; to maintain your balance you need to keep moving”. That really resonated with me – I didn’t want to slow down, wobble and fall over, I wanted to keep moving and stay in control of my life, so that’s what I tried to do.
4. Get Out the HouseFollowing advice from the hospice I set myself a target to get out more – to be around other people, even if it was just wandering around the shops. That helped.
5. Don’t Slip Into Bad HabitsI‘d been through a big loss before and knew that there was a thin line between sadness and depression. It would have been so easy just to stay in bed in the morning, to let the house get untidy or to spend hours watching TV, but I was determined not to sink in my grief and self-pity. So, I made a promise to myself to stick to my normal schedule and routines as much as possible, even though I really had to push myself to do this.
6. Set New GoalsI stepped back and took a hard look at my life – I thought about what made me happy and what I would change if I had the opportunity. Then I decided – I need to make it happen - and I came up with a list of 14 goals. It felt at times as though my head had a different agenda to my heart, but I knew that one of my biggest challenges was going to be finding new purpose in life, so making this list felt like a step in the right direction.
7. Use Your Experience to Help OthersI wanted to do something with all the experience that I’d gained during our cancer journey together, so I contacted a number of cancer charities to see how I could get involved. I’m now working as a volunteer with Yes To Life and participating in support groups with Topic of Cancer.
8. Find Positive Ways to Channel Your AngerI started to write articles campaigning about issues that I felt passionate about, in particular how commercial conflicts of interests are slowing down the search for cancer cures, which helped to channel the anger at my loss in a positive way.
9. Plan Something You Haven’t Done BeforeI booked myself onto a weekend meditation retreat (well out of my comfort zone!). The inspiration for this came from one of the nurses at the hospice and I felt it would be good to invest a little bit in my spiritual wellbeing after the trauma of the last few years.
10. Set Yourself a ChallengePerhaps one of the biggest decisions I made though was to plan a big fundraising challenge in Beata’s memory - to give something back to the charities that helped her. I wanted to choose something that reflected the scale of the challenge Beata faced and the courage and determination she showed during her fight, so I’ve decided to try to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world! That’s really given me something to focus on!
I hope that reading about my experience has been of some help to you. If you are able to make a small donation to help me raise money for the Princess Alice Hospice and the cancer charity Yes To Life, I’d be very grateful. Please visit my Kilimanjaro for Cancer fundraising page:
This article was originally published on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-piears/becoming-a-cancer-widower_b_9003432.html
This is so incredibly inspiring and the details are so very helpful. My hasbaand has been fighting for two years now and is getting weaker. It is all so scary and although we remain positive but the unknown ahead is so scary. Thank you for your words as they are a comfort.xx
Thank you. I'm glad it was of some comfort to you. I feel for anyone in your situation and I hope that you can find the strength you need to face each day as it comes. Take care. John
that was lovely to read, My Husband died on 1st November last year so i can relate to all you wrote. He was only 47 but diagnosed eleven years earlier so it's been exhausting.
I have a similar view to you on coping, although i'm not planning to climb any mountains, but organising trips and weekends away with the children still feels scary, yet exciting after being unable to do anything for so long.
I feel i'm more wired to happiness than sadness but it does wash over you suddenly taking you unawares. Being around other people really helps and everyone has something in their life to make it difficult nobody gets an easy ride however it looks on the surface.
Best wishes to you and your family
First of all just want to say how sorry I am to read your sad story of your lovely wife, Beata's, long fight against cancer at such a young age, with so much to experience in life.
My husband Brian had survived liver cancer 2 years ago only to be struck by oesophagal cancer in June 2015. He put up an amazing fight with the treatment given only to lose it back in hospital at the end of November.
We have both been volunteers for many years at our local hospice, I have worked with day patients and their carers so know what amazing work the staff do, they are truly angels.
Over the years I have took part in sponsored walks, bike rides etc for the hospice, also walked/ran in the Race for Life with friends and family a number of times for Cancer research.
I applaud you in your effort to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, something I am too old and unfit to do now. I wish you every success in everything you do in your future life without your darling wife by your side. It's not a position any of us want to be in but have to carry on as best we can.
Take comfort in knowing that you did your best to give her a happy life, albeit shorter than it should have been.
Good luck for your future happiness
I am so sorry for your loss. Your wife Beata sounds like a lovely woman, and a lucky one too, to have had a husband such as you.
I just wanted to thank you for an inspiring blog. As I type, I am sitting in the hospice with my beloved husband, who is succumbing to a hugely aggressive mutated bowel cancer which has spread throughout his body.
Being here, trying to get through the days, doing the small things like wiping his mouth and then sitting and waiting some more for the event you dread most in the world is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but your description of your experience gave me some comfort, although obviously it would have been better if you had never had to go through it. I am so grateful that you had the courage to put it all in writing. Yes, I am utterly panicked at the thought of Pete actually dying, whenever it will be (although I have thought of little else for the past month), but your account has helped enormously in giving me some idea of what reaction to expect from myself.
For the afterwards ...... well, I hope to survive. I don't think I have your strength of character, no mountains for me, but your list has given me food for thought.
Thankyou again, and. Hope that your personal journey is becoming easier for you.
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