Lately I have been finding myself in the unique position of being asked for advice by people who have been recently diagnosed with or living with cancer as well as people who have a loved one diagnosed with cancer. I have had the experience of being both the caregiver to someone with cancer in 1990 as a person in my 20’s and also needed care when I was diagnosed with my own cancer in 2015. I was also a widow the week after I turned 30.
A number of people I know have recently lost their spouses this year after long illnesses, such as the type I went through with my late husband years ago. And because they know my backstory – they come to me for advice on how to get through it. The difference is that these people have lost their spouses after many years together with children and in some cases grandchildren. I was only married for 2 ½ years before Howie got sick and then lived through another 2 ½ years with him as he went through his illness.
We were young. We had all of these plans about our future together. We had just purchased our little condo in Englewood a few months before he got sick. It was small but it was ours. I was working a market research analyst but hoped to someday have a shop that catered to pets and their people. He was working as a production supervisor for a medical equipment supplier but wanted to be a chef. We were planning to send him to culinary school in Manhattan. Then he got laid off from his job in October of 1990.
That November he went outside to pick up the newspaper to look through the want ads. I was at work. As he bent down, he suddenly lost his vision. He described it as seeing “static”, like those of us who are old enough remember seeing on TV when the antenna went out. He called me at work to tell me and I raced the 45 minutes home on the NJ Turnpike immediately.
After several doctor visits and ultimately an MRI – we got the news that he had a brain tumor the size of 2 golf balls on the right side of his head above his ear. When he bent down it shifted and it destroyed his optic nerves. He would never regain his sight. It was technically called Astrocytoma Grade 3.
I will say this honestly. I started the grieving process the day we got the diagnosis. With that diagnosis I knew that he wouldn’t make it and it was a matter of how long it would be. That didn’t mean we didn’t try everything possible to save his life because we did. Surgery, radiation, chemo – whatever they knew how to do back then they did. We also kept taking him to specialists to restore his sight. I can’t imagine the horror of the diagnosis and then having to get through it all without sight. I didn’t have to imagine it actually. I was living it through my young husband.
So for 2 years and 4 months I had time to grieve for the life we would never have together, the dreams we had that would never be and the worst part – that he would live this miserable life of cancer and blindness until he had no life at all. I would get to carry on but he would not. I knew this and it was sickening to think about. Every day I did the best I could to make sure he was as well taken care of as possible. At the end – the last 30 days – he had to go into hospice care at a place in Hawthorne NY called Rosary Hill. It was run by nuns. If I couldn’t manage him at home – it was the next best place to be. They did this all free, donation only, and do the most difficult of work. God bless them.
Howie passed there at Rosary Hill on March 27th, 1993 at 8PM. He had this talking alarm clock that announced the time every 15 minutes and the moment the nun pronounced him gone, the clock went off and said “It’s 8 o’clock PM”. We all looked at each other…..
So now after being consumed with doctor visits, hospitals, tests, chemo, support groups, and everything related – I now had nothing. No husband and a lot of empty time. Given his diagnosis I knew this would be how it would be. I had just turned 30 the week before. I also lost what disability he was getting and so I couldn’t afford to stay in my current job or I’d lose our little condo. I ended up leaving the job I was at for the last 5 years that was very good to me through Howie’s illness because I simply needed to make more money that would’ve been impossible to do if I stayed.
I was hired by a new-ish company that was closer to my house at a fair amount more than I was making previously and had big potential to grow. This allowed me and our 5 cats to stay where we were. I threw myself into my job. I used it as “therapy” to keep occupied and my mind involved in something else as I tried to move on from the sadness of the last 2 ½ years. I also went for actual therapy. But this new company was willing to take every bit that I would give it and I gave it evenings and weekends too. I figured I might as well be productive with my time instead of sitting home and doing something destructive, which would’ve been easy to do. I rose up through the company and became a Director and then a Vice President 4 years after I had started there in 1993.
I also spent time with old friends and made some new ones. I started doing things I never thought I’d do like go to the opera and to Shakespeare festivals. I still embraced my “grunge” side and so sometimes there were those concerts to go to! I tried to bring some fun back in and work a little less.
I met my current husband Jim through the K-Rock Dateline – this was before internet dating – this was by phone. We had much in common – one of the most important things was to find someone who loved animals as much as I did. Jim had a dog and I had several cats. We were a perfectly blended family.
Jim and I married in 1998 and we are about to celebrate our 21st anniversary together. At our wedding – instead of favors – we donated the money to Rosary Hill in honor of Howie.
My heart still breaks over what he went through and that he didn’t get to live what should’ve been more than half of his life. People ask how long does it take to get over losing a spouse? The answer is as long as it takes you and never. There is no time limit on grief. The important thing is that you continue on with your life in the best way you can – your spouse would want you to be happy, even if they can’t be with you. Another question is “How did you get through it?”. The answer I have is I threw myself into something productive like my work. Part of it was survival and part of it was to take my mind off of my sadness, it was a distraction. I could be constructive or destructive. I chose constructive because destructive would’ve brought me more misery and the last thing I needed was more misery.
The hardest part of the experience after Howie passed away were the weeks after everything was over. Life goes back to normal for everyone else. People go back to their routines. You are left alone with a different life now, certainly not the one you thought. You don’t quite know what to do with yourself. The house is emptier and in my case although I had our beloved cats – I had no human there to come home to. No one to tell my day to. No one to call if I was going to be late. No one to cry to. Actually sometimes I did talk to my cats and cry to my cats. And I totally believe they were grieving too. If you are supporting someone else who is going through the process – remember them a month afterwards, 6 months, a year or more afterwards. These are some of the loneliest and most difficult days of all.
The next piece of advice I have is if you had family together or have families in general – spend time with them. They are grieving too and you can all be support for one another. We didn’t have our own family together and we both didn’t have large families around although his mother and I formed a very special bond that lasted many years. Lean on each other for support. I had friends who were there for me.
Your spouse would want you to be happy and live the best life you can, if they can’t be there. That doesn’t mean you forget them. In fact – you live your life in their honor. Make them proud. Share them with other people so their memory lives on. Your life will be different from there on but you get to live so LIVE.