Terminal Illness - Death and Grief
No one likes to think about illness and death, when we are well, we feel invincible and there is nothing that can prepare us for the shock and devastation of a terminal diagnosis. The knowledge that we can no longer take our lives or the lives we share with our loved ones for granted takes away our ability to plan for the future and removes hope from our lives. When a loved one becomes terminally ill, we grieve in anticipation of their death, we grieve for the loss of them in our lives and we grieve for our own mortality.
My journey began in Dec 1999.when my husband and partner of 37 years was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His terminal diagnosis was delivered in a some what brutal manner by a young doctor who concluded his statement by saying "three to nine months I reckon." Upon hearing those words - I felt as if Brian and I had been shot. Certainly Brian was mortally wounded and I who loved him completely felt as if I too had received a death sentence.
My initial shock over his diagnosis was followed by anger and denial. I refused to believe that there was nothing I could do to save his life and begun surfing the internet for any information I could find regarding his disease, hoping to find someone, somewhere who had found a cure. I was looking for a miracle and found none, however the knowledge I acquired helped me to accept that my husband was dying. This did not make it easier to bear, living in expectation of a loved ones death, is like sitting on a time bomb. Knowing that it is going to go off but being powerless to stop it.
My turmoil was made worse by the reaction of our friends, who upon hearing of Brian's diagnosis were shocked and not knowing what to do or say, avoided us. Some even crossing the street when they saw us coming. At our local club instead of the enthusiastic welcome we were accustomed to, we were greeted with silence or exaggerated attempts at joviality. It was as if we had lost our identity, they no longer saw us as Brian and Lorraine, we had become the objects of pity, a sad reminder of the fragility of life.
Brian's prognosis of three to nine months was ever on our minds and this had a catastrophic affect on all of our lives. We dared not plan for anything fearing that Brian would not be with us to enjoy it. Our eldest daughter - wanting her father to be present at her wedding, planned it for June, six months after his diagnosis. We found it hard to find joy in the preparations as we greatly feared that he would not be alive to share it with us. Birthdays and Christmases brought the same anguish.
With no idea of what to expect, I feared that he might die at any time and due to this, I saw any symptom he displayed as a sign of his imminent death. I was reluctant to let him out of my sight for fear that he would not return to me. I wondered how he would die. Would he have a heart attack, a haemorrhaged, or suddenly be unable to breath. Would he be in much pain? The relief I felt for each month of life he was granted was overshadowed by my dread of the beginning of each new month because the beginning of each month brought us closer to the 9 months maximum of his prognosis.
For the first time in our long relationship, I could not turn to Brian for strength. I recognised and supported his need to live in hope whilst at the same time I was struggling with my hopelessness. I could not burden the children with my grief; they had not fully accepted that their father's prognosis and it hurt them if I mentioned his condition. It was hard to remain strong for all of them and to act as if everything was okay - when nothing was okay. There were days when I told everyone I met - that my husband was dying. Seeing the sympathy and compassion on their faces justified the depth of my despair.
My emotional turmoil soon affected my health, I ached with tension, begun to have trouble catching my breath, groaned involuntarily and felt as if I too were dying. I was fortunate in that my doctor did not prescribe anti depressants for me to help me cope with my anticipatory grief. Instead he advised that I see a councilor on a regular basis and that I begin writing in a personal diary. His advice was sound. The diary I begun on that day - became my strongest coping tool - I wrote in it daily, often in the form of poetry - pouring my heartache and fear onto the pages. I wrote the poem Loving You - shortly after his diagnosis - the words Lean on me - Later became the title of my book.
In sickness and in health - until death us do part. No wedding vows could be truer.
Brian's illness and death has profoundly impacted on my life. His courage and the strength I found to support him as he journeyed to the end of his life - has shown me the true meaning of love and the strength of the human spirit.