My husband Peter died two years ago. He had been suffering skin cancer for many years but became critically ill in the final 18 months.
Even though he was seriously ill, I wasn’t expecting his death. It was sudden and brutal. As if someone had taken a sledgehammer and whacked me across the head. Birds tweeted for months.
But now I find that a sense of ‘normal’ is coming into view.
It’s strange how time changes things. I look back onto those last 18 months of Pete’s life and wonder how we, the family, all got through it. I was numb and I guess the kids were but we didn’t really discuss it.
Most of all, how did Pete cope? I never knew. He withdrew from me into a shell and I am sad to say I lost him way before his death.
I’ve been having other thoughts, regrets and remorse all of which have all led to some contemplation.
So, here are a few reflections about what it’s like to live with someone dying of cancer:
You can’t afford to think about death. I had to focus on the optimism that came from the doctors. It wasn’t hard for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t have the mental resilience to consider Pete dying and secondly, denial kicked in big time and worked to cushion me from the reality of my situation i.e. Pete was weeks away from death when he died. But I didn’t see it.
You become adept at checking for life. I didn’t realize at the time but looking back I remember peering my head into Pete’s room about every 15 minutes. I wanted to check that he was still breathing. (My younger son used to do the same thing. It was only after Pete died that we realised we both did it.) I wondered if that was his last breath Or was it that one? Or was it that one? No, still breathing. Wow! I’ll check in a minute…..wait no, just check one more time. Yep, still breathing. Phew! ‘Pete’ I’d call. ‘Mmmmm’ he replied, waking up, ‘Just checking you're OK’. 'I'm fine; leave me alone.' "OK, just as long as you're OK.'
You have to take responsibility for everything. Its vital that the healthy partner takes on all the responsibility for the family, the finance
and any associated problems. It’s neither fair nor ethically responsible to burden someone who’s sick with problems of which they can do nothing about. However, this saddles the carer with a tremendous amount of responsibility. I’m still working through the leftovers of post traumatic stress.
You lose them before you lose them. I found it practically impossible to connect with Pete because I was living and he was dying. There is no bridge that connects those two parts. I felt the growing distance between us. This was as painful as the realization that Pete was very sick. We lost that friendship as I became the (sometimes bossy) nurse and he became the infantile man who’d lost his masculinity but just managed to hang on to a semblance of dignity.
You have to get over being squeamish. I had extreme squeamishity (sic). Before I got over it I’d pass the cup of tea through his bedroom door and then make a run for it. Then, I had to get over myself. I learned to cope with cannulas, tubes sticking out of the neck, bed sores, bloody bandages, stitches, bathing raw skin where it had been removed for grafts, bed baths, gaping wounds, lacerations and post operative sores.
You never stop looking for alternative treatments. I spent hours and far too much money on quack treatments that seemed to be a cure all for everything. We are talking colloidal silver, herbs, homeopathy, diluted bleach therapy, spirulina, spiritual healing, high vitamin C treatment, cannabis oil, oxygen therapy, Ultrasound, acupuncture, medicinal mushrooms, heat lamps and I would have taken snake oil if we could have found it.
Sometimes you want to change places. I feel no pride in admitting that sometimes I wanted to be in that bed and have Pete look after me. Not only had I lost my best friend but I’d also lost my soul mate who would nurture me when I was ill. There was only one person who could take care of the house, the children, the shopping and cooking, the dog, fix the TV, field phone calls, unblock the sink ALL AT ONCE and that was Pete.
Denial is a lifesaver. People tell me now that they could see Pete didn’t have long to live. It still comes as a complete surprise to me. How did I not see that he was going downhill? Thank goodness for denial. Had I also believed that Pete was going to die soon I would have collapsed. If any thoughts like ‘Will Pete see the new blossom on that tree in Spring?’ came along, I’d smash them down.
You give so much of yourself that you are depleted. Yet there is no other way to do it. I found myself drawn more and more into making sure that Pete was okay, to the detriment of my well being. I’m not sure if my extreme dedication was necessary or a form of control trying to save Pete's life but I found myself compelled to be as attentive as I could to what Pete needed. My life perimeter grew so small that I forgot there was life outside the four walls. I had no social life because even if I went out, thoughts of his wellbeing distracted me. The invitations eventually dried up.
It becomes impossible to see you will have a life after their death. In my case it was as if I was also heading towards death. There was no space to consider a life on my own. During those 18 months my future had broken. Yet here I am. Healing. Growing. Accepting.
My boys are rowing the Atlantic for British Skin Foundation in Pete's memory. Please support them at www.oceanbrothers.co.uk