The idea of my husband, best friend, lover, business partner and companion leaving me behind was unbearable. It was my greatest fear. Having had no children, the thought of him dying first and me being left alone in the world was something I simply couldn’t bear.
So I didn’t think about it – or when the thought came to mind, I just banished it as quickly as I could.
And then my greatest fear came true.
Philip was diagnosed with cancer in October 2010. It came out of the blue, as these things often do; we had no reason to believe that the problems he’d been having with his digestion were anything other than, at worst, an ulcer. So the stomach cancer diagnosis completely threw us. It had only been caught so early because a diligent doctor had recommended an endoscopy ‘just to eliminate all possibilities’.
I remember in the early days, before Philip started chemo, thinking ‘who will I talk to?’ when I imagined him not being around. That was another thought I found impossible to really imagine. Life without my husband simply meant that I would not want to live either. I banished those thoughts too, and focused instead on a successful treatment plan.
That plan was chemotherapy, an operation, and then more chemo. The doctors even said that if all the cancerous tissue was removed from the stomach, then he had every chance of living a long and healthy life. We focused on this, of course, and bore the chemotherapy and the ghastly effects of it as best as possible. Then we had a joyous few weeks before the operation, when he was in the best health he had been in for years. (Confusing, that – it made us think the presence of cancer was all a delusion).
We took a two week holiday in Morocco – which turned out to be the best decision we could have ever made, despite my worrying that the money it cost was allocated to paying off some bank debts. Thank goodness we didn’t do the ‘sensible’ thing, because the operation didn’t work – traces of cancer remained, despite the surgeons’ best efforts.
Now I really was facing the probability, even likelihood, of Philip dying and me being left alone.
But the thing is, when someone is still with you, still alive, you simply get on with life.
Yes, Life itself had delivered us this big blow (this was certainly not in our life plans, for a start he was only 65, not old these days), but no matter what Life delivers you, you deal with it in the best way possible. So that’s what we did.
In retrospect, that last year we had together turned out to be a truly wonderful one, despite cancer being a third party in our marriage. We were forced into living in the ‘present moment’ much more than we had ever been, and found a greater depth of love, joy and peace together as a result.
But he did die.
I was left alone, and my greatest fear had come true. How did I cope?
Well, the main thing I did was acknowledge the feelings. I hung onto this idea as a drowning man holds onto the only piece of wood in a turbulent sea.
I now recommend that when any feeling we don’t like comes knocking at the front door, whether belonging to grief or not, our job is to open the door.
Welcome it in (even if you really don’t want to). Open the windows of your house and let it fully in – but also open all the doors at the back of your house, so the feeling can easily leave as well. It will do that – this is exactly what happened with all the rage, the tears, the bewilderment, fear, worry, depression and insecurity that I felt. That’s how I can speak so authoritatively about this now.
What’s more, I am the stronger for it, and that is why I was able to publish Gifted By Grief: A True Story of Cancer, Loss and Rebirth.
But I am also extremely grateful for something else – our willingness to answer some very difficult questions before he actually died. I wrote about these in Gifted By Grief, and they formed the basis of the Before I Go workbook.
In the midst of the early weeks of grief, there are many practical things to be taken care of – the lasting effects of a life well-lived in various ways.
But all I had to do was view the list we had created together, and follow the instructions on it.
This saved me the heartache and headache of trying to make decisions that needed to be done together. It saved me the anxiety of wondering if I was doing what Philip would have wanted, and the hours of trying to sort out where passwords were, of what to give to who, of how best to make financial decisions that would impact my life in years to come.
All this – because he had been willing to answer these questions.
You can find the questions in the workbook – but because it is so much easier to answer them in the company of others doing the same thing, you can now sign up for the Before I Go online programme, starting 10th July.
Go on, check it out, I dare you!
I dare you because frankly, although doing this IS for everyone (after all, everyone is going to die someday) it’s only a few who will have the courage to face up to the fact there IS an elephant in the room, and start to have a conversation with her.
Are you one of those few?
If you are, then visit here to discover much more about the kind of questions you will be facilitated to answer, and thus bring yourself peace of mind, your family relief and release from worry, and discover also some of the other unexpected benefits along the way.