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I Never Thought I'd Be in That Place as My Husband Fought Cancer

How can one prepare for grief? There really is no preparing for the onslaught of emotions and the slamming shut of any feeling at all that can happen with grief.

After my husband died, someone close to me said, “At least you had time to prepare.”

While I know this person meant well, I now know those words were more for him than for me. It’s never good to start a sentence with “at least” when speaking to someone who is grieving. There is no “at least.” It’s “all the most” — the most difficult pain, the most gut-wrenching heartache, the most devastating emptiness. The most.

Grief is not talked about in our culture. People don’t know what to do with others’ pain, so they unconsciously say things that comfort themselves, thinking they are being helpful for the one who’s grieving. It’s all in an attempt to put the emotion in a box — to contain it.

But grief can’t be contained, at least not for long. It always finds a way to leak out of the box. It may be in conventional ways, like tears, sadness, anger. Or in unconventional ways, like overspending, over-indulging, jumping quickly into new relationships, pretending to be OK.

But the truth is, there is no way to hide from grief. It is a necessary part of life and will eventually express itself, one way or another.

My husband battled various illnesses for most of our married life. He endured both rare and not so rare diseases. Tom was diagnosed with vascular anomaly syndrome, which causes blood vessels to knot up in a tumor-like fashion, and leads to many surgeries, including brain surgery.

He also had mixed connective tissue disease, an autoimmune disorder comprised of several different autoimmune disorders, which attacked his digestive system and lungs, leaving him with only 40 percent of his lung function.

He also developed prostate cancer and multiple myeloma (a blood cancer that eventually took his life).

Living with chronic illness causes a constant low-level state of grief, both for the person who is ill and for that person’s family. It varies from being a cirrostratus cloud that looms overhead, like a thin veil, filtering the light with glimmers of hope, to becoming a large cumulonimbus thunderstorm cloud, dark and ominous, following each new symptom or health scare.

Sometimes it hangs directly overhead, dumping huge teardrops of rain, booming loud claps of thunder, as fear beats inside one’s chest and lightning strikes the heart — ever-present.

Most of us don’t ever think we will be in that place of grief, even though it is an unavoidable aspect of life. I never thought I would be sitting in a hospital room, watching my husband slowly die, not even when his cancer (which had been in remission) came back with a vengeance.

It’s self-preservation I suppose. I wasn’t necessarily in denial — I knew he could die — but I never allowed myself to “prepare” for that possibility. I needed to hang on to any shred of hope I could, otherwise, how would I function?

I believe in miracles. I believe anything is possible. I don’t accept “no” for an answer. So, when my husband’s body became riddled with cancer, I still hoped beyond hope a miracle would happen. I knew, deep down in my heart, he could die, but I still never thought I would be in that place.

When the doctors told us that Tom’s lungs and kidneys were consumed with cancer and there was realistically nothing else we could do, it was surreal, as if I was viewing a movie in an empty cinema. I was in the audience watching the drama unfold, trying to connect to it, yet wanting to cover my eyes and ears — wanting to run out of the theater.

I heard the words from the doctor, “We’ve already done massive chemo twice and it came back. The reality is if we tried it again, it would probably kill you.”

I saw my husband’s continence change from pain to a semblance of relief listening to the doctor’s words. I heard my husband’s resolve to end the battle when he slowly turned to me, sorrow enveloping his face and faintly whispered, “I’m so sorry.” He had been saying for a while he was “tired of living in this body.” He was tired of the fight. It was time to let go.

I never thought we’d be in that place.

The night before we got the news from the doctor, I was lying on my makeshift bed next to Tom in the hospital. The nurses had moved his bed next to mine so I could be as close as possible to him. As I lied there, I began praying fervently, “God. This is not my will. Please do something! I can’t do this. If it is not Your will for him to live, then You are going to have to help me, because I can’t accept it. Please help me to accept Your will. Whatever it is. I can’t do this alone.”

And He did. I was consumed with grief losing my soulmate. My body could do nothing else but release the years of tears that I had locked in the box, hoping against hope they would never have to be unleashed. I cried almost continuously those last four days in the hospital. They were tears for what was to come, tears for what had been and tears for what would not be.

But with the tears came a sense of peace — peace knowing my husband would no longer suffer; peace that he was ready to be with God. I felt gratitude for the gift of acceptance I was given and for the gift of peace knowing my faith would carry me, and that I was not grieving alone.

I never thought I would be in that place.

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Thinkstock photo by Wavebreakmedia