Talking About the Death of a Spouse

As I write this column, it has been just two weeks since my wife, Kathleen, died of a virulent lung cancer. At times I feel okay, consoling myself that she lived a good life and was not in great pain at the end. At other times, I walk around like a dead man. I have conversations with friends and have no idea what they just said to me. I'm in this kind of stupor, carrying on with life but not really functioning at all.

Friends and family have been supportive. Some utter platitudes like “She's in a better place now, Hank.” I want to say, “Oh,yea. How do you know ?” One person said to me that she knows exactly how I feel.” I wonder how she knows that ? But, I can't get angry with people who are coming from a place of love and caring. The concern is real and that is what counts.

I know from my own experience as a priest how challenging it is to say the right words to someone who is grieving. The wiser ones say little. A hug, a hand on the shoulder and perhaps “I'm sorry,” is more than sufficient. Heart speaks to heart.

At first I was surprised that a few of my closest friends seem to be avoiding me after the funeral. Then, I realized that some folks just don't do well in this situation. It's not that they don't care. Rather, they are embarrassed by death. They don't know what to say so they avoid even meeting up with me.

Re-reading CS Lewis's book. ” A Grief Observed,” I discovered that I am not alone with the difficulty I am having in talking about my loss, even to good friends. In CS Lewis's case, he said he couldn't even talk to his teen-age son about the death of his wife. Looking back, his now adult son defends himself in this way. “He didn't understand that I was only 14 when Mom died, a product of seven years of indoctrination in a British Preparatory School. The lesson I was taught throughout that time was that the most shameful thing that could happen to me would be to be reduced to tears in public. British boys don't cry. It took me almost 30 years to learn how to cry without being ashamed.

Thank God, the time when it was considered a weakness for men to cry has pretty well passed. I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I shed tears at my wife's passing and that her kids did the same. I fully expect, in these coming months, to continue to feel her loss deeply and, at times, to cry again. You don't just turn your feelings off like a faucet.

At the same time, I want to celebrate her life more than mourn her death. She gave me love and laughter, lots of laughter. One of her sons called her “a real hoot.” She also did not hesitate to give me a kick in the butt when I needed it, a hug when I needed that. I'm awfully glad that she was a part of my life. I'll try my best to get on with my life, as millions of widows and widowers continue to do. We owe that to the spouse who has preceded us.

To so many of you who have sent me letters and e-mail and called me on the phone to pledge your prayers and support, I will be ever grateful.

“I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen”

So it's come to the 11th. hour. My wife, my lover, my best friend is dying. The cancer that had grabbed at her lungs has now spread to her brain. At the hospital, she could no longer hold down her food or even drink so, as a family, we decided to enroll her in Hospice and take her home to die. Here at home, she can look out over our garden and, surrounded by her family and loved ones, make her passage to another life. It sure beats the heck out of a sterile hospital room.

Reaching a decision to withdraw her feeding tube was made much easier because Kathleen had made her wishes known to me and put it in writing to her doctors. She did not want to be kept alive by machine. Her children and I all supported her wishes. That was all there was to it. We all knew that quality of life is very important to Kathleen. Nobody wanted this wonderful woman to have to be in pain or physical discomfort a moment more than she had to.

The Hospice folks are extraordinarily helpful. While being thoroughly professional, they manage to bring something extra, a sense of hominess and warmth. The hospice team reminds me of someone's old Aunt Hazel . You know what I mean? Most families have one, the kind of person who comes into your life brimming with common sense and good humor and puts everyone at ease. The nurse trains us how to give the necessary medications and prepares us for what we might expect in the days ahead. The aide comes by to change her bedclothes and freshen her up. She gives Kathleen a sponge bath while Kath's daughter tenderly massages her mom's feet. All are extraordinarily compassionate and respectful.

As I write this late at night, Kathleen seems to be relatively pain free. Is she really free of pain? I don't know. I hope so. Once in a while she lets out a moan and one of us administers morphine for the pain. When she becomes very restless, we give her ativan, an anxiety medicine. Her kids and I are with her always. Even at night, there are always two of us watching with her, holding her hand, praying with her. I even sing to her “I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” and her favorite “Amazing Grace.” and read from the mediation book she likes so much. We all take turns having our private moments with Kath. Our conversations are pretty much one way because she is unable to respond but it still feels good just to tell her that we love her and say our personal farewells.

It feels like time has stopped for all of us during this time. Her kids all have taken off from work. Friends and neighbors drop by with casseroles or other comfort food. The telephone rings often with friends expressing their sorrow and asking us if there is anything they can do. Her four children and myself are in a kind of time warp. None of us is functioning very well mentally. What energy we have is devoted to caring for Kathleen. My daughter, Laura and little Abby drop by to bring us sandwiches. My grand daughter, at all of 2 1/2 years is way too little to understand what is going on, but her child's laughter and energy are a welcome respite from the grief we adults are feeling.

Today we are beginning the of our vigil. All of us have thought at one time or another to give Kathleen an overdose of morphine and end this agony but we are acutely conscious that we could not live with that kind of guilt. Her life is in God's hands now. Our job is to stay by her side, to love her, to pray for her, to be present until a loving God takes her.