Christmas Memories and Conversations About Death
- Cancer & Caregiving
- Dec. 18, 2013
My husband, Brian, was an amazing man who loved life, loved his family and enjoyed celebrating special occasions with us all. Christmas was his favorite time of year.
Despite his prognosis of three to nine months, Brian had enjoyed spending two Christmas Days with us (1999 and 2000) and was looking forward to a third. Although he was very weak by that time, he was determined to spend Christmas with his loved ones and had taken part in all of the preparations.
I will never forget the day we took him to the local shopping mall to do Christmas shopping, or the look of joy on his face as he chose a special gift for all of us.
A week before Christmas 2001, Brian and I were sitting quietly together when he asked, “How many Christmases have I seen since I was diagnosed? Thinking that he would be with us for Christmas celebrations only days away, I answered, “Three.”
Brian then turned to me and said, “I don’t think I will be here for another.”
‘The News Was Not Good’
Death was the furthest thing from my mind when my husband, Brian, had begun to experience shortness of breath more than two years earlier. I believed that it was most likely due to a chest infection and made a doctor’s appointment for him, thinking that he would be prescribed a course of antibiotics.
I could not have been more wrong.
When Brian returned home, he had some disturbing news. He told me that his shortness of breath was caused by a buildup of fluid on his lungs and that the doctor had drained this and sent it off to pathology.
When the results came back, the news was not good. Cancer cells had been found in the fluid, and further tests were needed to determine what type of cancer they were.
Nothing could have prepared us for the test results.
Our Worst Nightmare
Brian was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in December 1999 and was told there was no cure for this disease. There was no mention of an operation or a clinical trial that may have extended Brian’s life. Instead, he was given three to nine months to live.
I cannot begin to imagine what thoughts ran through Brian’s mind at this devastating moment in time, but I will never forget the thoughts that ran through mine: “This can’t be true. He can’t be dying. I don’t believe it.”
Looking back, I can see that my refusal to believe that there was no cure for Brian’s disease helped me to focus on finding a way to save his life, rather than thinking about his death.
Praying that there was a cure for mesothelioma and that all I had to do was find it, I spent many hours on the Internet searching for someone, somewhere, who had survived this disease.
Sadly, my efforts were futile, and there came a day when I had to accept that Brian was going to die. His prognosis of three to nine months hung heavily on my mind, and I was frightened of what the future would bring.
Not knowing what to expect, I began to worry about how and when he would die and was loathe to let him out of my sight in case he died without me having the chance to say goodbye.
Living in expectation of his death was a surreal experience for me, especially when his disease was in its early stages and his only symptom was shortness of breath. Once this fluid was drained, Brian’s breathing returned to normal, and he looked and acted the same as he always had.
In those early days, there were many times when I thought: “How can he be dying when he looks so well?”
Thoughts of Death
As Brian’s disease progressed and the ravages of mesothelioma could clearly be seen in his once-strong body, the thought of him dying was never far from my mind.
Whatever thoughts Brian had about his prognosis, he kept to himself. He never brought up the subject of death, and not wishing to upset him unnecessarily, I followed his lead.
Often, people would ask me how Brian was coping with his terminal diagnosis. Their question never failed to upset me, and I often felt like replying, “How would you feel if you were told you were going to die?”
Despite this, I did not reply to anyone in this way, and my stock answer to this question was, “I have no idea how Brian copes with the knowledge that he is dying. I can only tell you how I am feeling.” If they cared to listen, I would tell them that I felt as if I were dying as well.
The ravages mesothelioma places upon the body began to show, and I worried more about his impending death. Upon his diagnosis, I had promised him that he would not die in the hospital, and even though we had not spoken of death since that time, I was determined to keep my promise.
Despite this, I was really worried about my ability to make this possible. I knew nothing about the stages of dying and feared that I would not be able to help Brian when the time came.
Once again, I turned to the Internet and came to understand the dying process and the things that I could do to support Brian as he traveled to the end of his life.
Learning what to expect was one thing; watching it happen to my beloved husband was another. It eventually became impossible for me to hold my grief inside. I desperately needed to talk to someone, but did not want to place any more stress upon my children.
Thankfully, Brian’s sister, Pat, was there for me. I will forever be grateful for the love and support of this beautiful woman, who, despite her own grief, supported me in my time of need. When I needed to talk, she was there to listen; when I needed to cry, she was there to comfort me.
If ever there was an angel on earth, she is surely one of them.
One of the things I really worried about was Brian’s funeral and where he would be buried. I feared that I would not be able to cope with the funeral arrangements after he had passed away, and wanted to put things into place beforehand.
Once again, Pat was there to support me. She and I discussed what we thought would be best for Brian upon his death, and I made arrangements.
Christmas and Goodbyes
As Christmas approached, I instinctively knew that Brian wanted to talk to me about his death. I felt so grateful that he wanted to share his feelings with me.
This made it possible for me to share my feelings with him, and our following conversation — though incredibly sad — brought a huge sense of relief.
Brian told me that he was not afraid of dying and that he was pleased with the memorial service I had planned for him. This meant a lot to me, as I so wanted his memorial to be a fitting celebration of his life.
We talked about Brian’s parents, who had both passed, and wondered if they would be waiting for him on the other side. The thought of this was so comforting.
Brian passed away on Christmas Eve 2001. He was 54 years old.
Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net.