There’s nothing that really prepares you for the untimely death of someone you love.
And even the so-called 5-stages of grief don’t adequately prepare or console you during your journey through mourning.
The enormity of emotions related to grief are personal and can’t be defined with an analogy or metaphor that is universal.
The process of grief, with cliché phrases like, “everything happens for a reason”, “they’re in a better place”, “the universe has a plan”, or “you are only given what you can handle” – are little help to explain the circumstance of death.
Loss is Loss
Grief is Grief
And no matter who’s dearly departed, this part of life, that is for sure certain – can both take you into the depths of darkness and also stretch you to grow into a place of appreciation.
Through my grief, I found gratitude…
In an age where divorce rates are on the rise, it’s not common for someone to say they’ve been married to the same person for more than half of their life!
This is especially true of someone who is only 35.
But at 17, I met the guy who would later become my husband, partner and the father of my children.
Although I was still in high school when I met Patrick (he had graduated, was going to university and working part-time), we quickly became serious and our relationship moved fast – as young love often does. We moved in together when I finished high school and were married when I was 21 (he was 27) and still attending university. When most kids my age were partying and exploring the freedom of youth, I was making mortgage payments and grocery shopping on weekends!
I guess I’ve always been an old soul, serious and mature for my age.
But Paddy and I grew up a lot together, and side by side, we navigated the life stages of adulthood, careers, parenthood, adoption and the loss of a parent.
What we were never prepared for, nor could we have ever imagined, was the life-changing words that we received in early 2012…
And two years later, after surgery, countless chemotherapy and other treatments, that word manifested into TERMINAL.
At 39 years old, Pat was in the height of his career and our family was complete with the arrival of our third daughter. But just a week after she was born, the abdominal pain that he so often experienced, peaked and he checked into the emergency room at our local hospital. After waiting for several hours, he ended up leaving before he saw a doctor, not wanting to leave me with the burden of a new born and 2 other little kids.
Like most guys, he never really complained about his health. For years he’d been coping with the nuisance of chronic facial pain and lived with an invisible disability that was triggered by drafts from air vents, including air conditioning & heat, open windows and ceiling fans. He’d sought medical help over the years, never confirming a diagnosis, just a prescription for more pain meds and a doctor’s note for an accommodation at work.
From time to time he also went to the doctor for digestive discomfort. A few inconclusive tests later, this too was dismissed and he accepted this with complacency and didn’t pursue further investigation.
But that night, when our newborn was less than a week old, he must have known that something wasn’t right.
Even though he left the hospital, he did follow up with our family doctor who requisitioned an appointment with gastro specialist, thinking he was experiencing crohns disease or colitis.
I, on the other hand, postpartum and overwhelmed with a new born and 3 other kids, thought it was all in his head! Just like the facial pain, I thought he was being a bit of a baby.
I had to drive Pat to the specialist that day for a colonoscopy. He would be mildly sedated and couldn’t drive home. While Paddy was in the exam room, I waited in the reception area with my baby in her bucket seat and the other kids were at school, enjoying a few moments to myself and skimming through the gossip magazines.
The doctor called me into his office. I didn’t realize it when I first stepped in, but Pat’s face was drawn and grave. I was still happy-go-lucky, having chatted casually with the receptionist about how cute my baby was, I didn’t notice he was quiet and reserved.
Then the doctor cut to the chase.
I couldn’t complete the exam, there is a blockage in the colon and it looks to me like cancer. I took a biopsy and will send it to the lab.
I looked at Pat, and recognised the look on his face. He had already been told. We were speechless. I began shaking. We had to leave to pick the other girls up from the bus stop. I couldn’t even carry the bucket seat for the baby. That friendly receptionist carried her down to the car so we could leave but I still had to drive home.
We didn’t say anything during that 5-minute drive to the bus stop. I had to harness all my focus and energy on driving. When we got to the corner, with 5 minutes to spare before our kids would bounce off the bus. We looked at each other and cried.
No, scratch that. We sobbed.
It was an ugly cry. The kind that takes your breath away and makes you heave. It leaves you sick to your stomach and blurs your vision.
But in those few moments, before our girls would greet us with their innocence and enthusiasm, and with an unspoken agreement, Pat and I made a choice that would prove to be a glimpse into the course of our journey…
We wiped away the tears, composed ourselves, took deep breaths, smiled for our children and made the decision to just move forward.
There was no other choice.
To present ourselves to our children as the hot-messes we were, just moments before, would be scary and unfair to them. We didn’t have answers. But we knew, from walking through cancer with his mother a few years before, that although this disease was in his body, the implications of a diagnosis was a family affair.
The next 2 and a half years following the initial diagnosis, and the 3 years that have since followed Pat’s death are surreal – both a blur of memories and frozen as slow motion in my heart and in my mind.
I look back and think – how the hell did I get through it?
At the time I was in survival mode.
I was in the thick of parenting, caregiving and trying to keep the pieces of our life in order. From driving kids to hockey practices, working full time, accompanying Pat to his appointments and treatments, raising 4 kids from preschool to college, and maintaining a busy household – I cried myself to sleep many nights and the ones that I didn’t, I fell asleep in sheer exhaustion in one of the girl’s beds or in the baby’s rocking chair.
I didn’t give much thought to mindfulness, meditation, journaling, counselling or seeking answers through spiritual guidance or dogma.
Instead, my hair was falling out (ironically he was the one going through chemo and didn’t lose any hair!), and I went through a period of a 6 week full blown migraine.
But how does that compare to a partner who has cancer?
I couldn’t complain about my own health, nor the fact that the burden of parenthood and obligation had suddenly shifted solely to my plate.
Cancer was riddling his body and spreading quickly – transforming him from 40 to 80 in a matter of a few short years.
On the outside, Pat was optimistic, positive and putting on a brave face. He was working in between chemo sessions and putting in his time at work, premeditating that eventually he would need enough hours to qualify for sick leave – he never wanted the burden of his illness to undermine our financial stability.
It’s not easy planning for the future when looking forward is so uncertain. Couple that with the drugs and therapies that accompany cancer and change the mental and physical state of the person you love.
The side effects of cancer treatment are unpredictable. At least that’s what we experienced. One chemotherapy drug so altered my husband’s personality – he was angry and volatile. I walked on eggshells around him, scared of what the next outburst would bring. On those quiet nights, shamefully, I admit, loyalty was not in my heart. Rather divorce was. I didn’t see how I could live the rest of my life in this ugly place.
Thankfully, 12 rounds and 6 months later this course of treatment ended. Narcotics replaced this chemotherapy for a while, to help manage the pain as the cancer spread to his spine, lungs and abdomen. However, coming home to a spouse who is “high” with young children in his care, while I was running around with another one, proved not to be the safest option, while certainly amusing for the kids at the time!
As the disease progressed, the therapies increased and the drugs got stronger, the reality of our future set in. Although cancer stole his youth, it did not diminish his stubborn nature or will to live.
But behind closed doors – after the village that supported us left – we grieved and cried those ugly tears and eventually Pat and I got to the business of death.
There’s still a part of me that is ashamed to admit that I appreciate and love life more than before.
I am happier and more fulfilled.
This confession is a part of MY growth, journey and transformation. My story and truth is hard work.
The Guilt between my Grief and Gratitude is something I continue to work on.
Although I would never want to repeat the experience that my family went through – the pain that Pat suffered or the fact that his death was premature, that he doesn’t get to watch his kids grow up and my children miss out on their father-daughter connection – I also wouldn’t change this story either.
If, “everything happens for a reason”, I’m not sure what this reason is – and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to know!
But through my pain I’ve certainly discovered my purpose. I appreciate my life – my past has shaped me into the person I am today, I am conscious of trying to live in the present and I anticipate the future with optimism. For these gifts, I am grateful.
Through my grief, I found a place of gratitude.
Kristine Peacock is a teacher and mother of 3 who found a passion for fitness and nutrition at a particularly challenging time in her life. She is now a Culinary Nutrition Expert on a mission to inspire healthy living with simple scratch cooking, using whole foods that promote optimal nutrition for the entire family. To read more about Kristine’s approach to healthy living, try her family friendly recipes or to read her Widow Warrior blog, visit her website here.