How Would You Handle a Death Sentence?

If you’re like my husband, you’d spend your last year preparing everyone you love for life without you

Photo by Kim Murray

What would you do if you went into the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, but a CAT scan revealed a massive brain tumor and the doctor handed you a death sentence? You’d probably stammer, “I don’t understand” as he explained the glioblastoma multiforme tumor will kill you because no cure exists.

“You only have 12 to 15 months to live. Please treat every day going forward as a gift.” If a terminal diagnosis reduced your future to months, not years, what would you do?

You might make a list

If you’re like my husband, you’d go home and make a list. You’d show your wife how to take care of things. Like how to snake the shower drain. You would explain that you remove her hair nests, the size of small rats, from the drain every few months.

“That’s so disgusting,” she’d say. “Why didn’t you ever make me clean out my own hair from the drain?”

And you’d say: “Because you just handle the disgusting stuff when you love someone as much as I love you.”

You’d show your wife where you keep the lightbulbs and explain the difference between the indoor and outdoor bulbs. Especially important to you would be your wife’s promise to change the outdoor lights by the garage to red and green bulbs every Christmas.

After showing her how to start the snowblower, remove moss from between the patio bricks, and add nectar to the hummingbird feeder, you’d say, “I’m so sorry you have to deal with all of this.”

You’d be dying, but feel bad that your wife has to remember to feed the hummingbirds.

You might hand over your business

If you’re like my husband, you would take your wife with you on sales calls and tell your customers she’ll run your business. The business she knows nothing about, other than that you sell chemicals to the metal processing industry.

Your wife would sit next to you in each of the conference rooms with a blank stare and a fake smile. As you boast about her business acumen, she’d dig her nails into her thigh underneath the table to keep from crying. Or screaming.

You wouldn’t know your wife stopped short of shouting, “This is ridiculous. I’m not doing this. Just tell them you’re dying so they can find another chemical supplier!”

Instead, you’d think that she was totally on board because she’d nod her head. You would have no idea she was only going along with your absurd plan because she thinks it’s bad karma to tell a dying man no.

If you’re like my husband, you’d sit in the corner chair in your home office and beam with pride as your wife reorganized your accounting system, automated your invoicing, and collected past-due payments.

You’d say, “I knew you could do it. You’ll end up running this business better than I did.”

And then you’d recite the formula for your rust-preventive oil again and quiz her on how much raw material to purchase for 275-gallon totes or 55-gallon drums.

You wouldn’t know your wife bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. Or screaming.

You wouldn’t know how much your wife wanted to yell, “But I don’t want to run this business. I hate it. I hate that you will die and leave me with these God-awful chemicals. I don’t give a shit about these formulas!”

Instead, you’d think she was a natural business owner as she took meticulous notes. You’d wax nostalgic about your years in the metal finishing industry while your wife scrambled to understand your products’ shipping classifications.

You might write your own goodbye letter

To prepare for your demise, you’d write a letter for the funeral director to read at your memorial service. If you’re like my husband, you’d want to reassure everyone you’re okay.

So you’d begin your letter with a proper goodbye.

It isn’t often a person has a chance to say goodbye for real. Every day you hear about some unfortunate soul having a funeral or memorial without the chance to say goodbye. So let me start my goodbye.

You’d want the entire world to know exactly how much you loved your life.

The bottom line is that I’ve had a really terrific life. Yes, I wish it was longer. Unfortunately, that’s not how my life was meant to be. So let me tell you why my life has been great and why I’m a lucky man.

You would heap praise on your wife and kids. Thank your parents, in-laws, customers, your son’s elementary school teachers, and everyone else you could think of. You’d end your letter on a positive note to mitigate the impending sorrow.

I know everyone is sad, but please remember that I had a great life. I love all of you!

You might tell people what they mean to you

Instead of working, you’d focus on spending your last year tying up loose ends. Revealing to people how much they mean to you. Apologizing to your parents for any wrongdoings as a kid.

And telling lots of jokes.

If you’re like my husband, jokes about death and dying aren’t all that funny until you’re the one in the thick of your own existential crisis. Then, and only then, is dying freaking hilarious.

The only way to survive your countdown to death is to flip the grim reaper the bird. You’d say, “I know you’re coming for me, but I’ve got at least 12 months so don’t start rapping your bony knuckles on my door until then. Capisce?”

You’d scoop up your kids every day with a bear hug and twirl them around the room.

“Hey guys, know what?”

Your kids, who never doubted the veracity of your love, would groan.

“We know what you’re gonna say, Dad. You luuuhhhhvvveee us. We already know!”

The only way to survive your countdown to death is to flip the grim reaper the bird.

If you’re like my husband, you’d be terrified your kids would eventually forget you, so you’d ask your wife to help you write a letter to each boy. You’d choose profound words too wise for their years, but words that burrow deep into their souls, anyway. You’d know that absorbing those words long after you’re gone would form a protective bond around your boys that death won’t ever break.

And you’d laminate them to make sure they last forever.

You’d write more letters to close friends, family, and your wife. Especially your wife. You’d apologize for not being able to grow old together. You’d remind her that she was the absolute best thing about your remarkable, albeit short, life.

You would remind friends to reach out to your wife because she’ll need help even when she acts like she doesn’t.

You might recognize the end is near

And then, after several months of lunches with friends, neighborhood poker games, travels with your family to squeeze in as many memories as possible, quality time with your parents, walks to smell the roses, sunrises, sunsets, surgeries, chemo and radiation, the grim reaper knocks.

If you’re like my husband, your hope would wane after you tried every available clinical trial and exhausted all of your chemo and radiation options.

When your doctor tells you there’s nothing more he can do, you’d reply, “I understand.”

You might have excruciating conversations

You’d realize you said everything you needed to say to everyone you needed to say it to, except for your kids. What would you do if you had to tell your sons, who are only eight and 10 years old, that you’re going to die?

If you’re like my husband, you’d gather your family together and brace yourself as you explain no cure exists for your brain tumor. You’d tell your kids the doctors can’t do anything more for you.

When your younger son asks, “Will you get better?” you’d say, “No.”

When your older son says, “What does that mean?” and your wife tries to say the words so you don’t have to, but struggles and stumbles in a way you’ve never seen before, you’d say the dreaded words instead.

“It means I will die.”

If you’re like my husband, you’d hang your head and cry with your sobbing wife and kids. You’d hold your family close and remain calm when your kids shriek in between choking sobs, “I don’t want you to die!”

You’d rub their backs and say, “I don’t want to die either, kiddo. But I want you to know one thing. One very important thing. I love you. That love will comfort you as long as you both shall live.”

You might start forgetting things

Around the 11-month mark, you’d start forgetting words at an alarming rate. Your clarity would ebb and flow, but mostly ebb. Your tumor progression would affect the part of your brain responsible for speech so when the doctor asks you what a pencil is, you’d answer, “I don’t understand the question.”

When he points to your shoe and says, “What’s the name for that?” you’d look down and shake your head. After a brief pause, you’d say, “I don’t know what you mean.”

If you’re like my husband, your tumor progression would also affect your reasoning. You’d suddenly forget you even have a brain tumor. You’d forget you were dying.

When your wife repeats what she thinks you already know because you’ve discussed it at length, for months on end, you’d cry.

“What have I done? We are a good family. What have I done to my family?”

You’d say this repeatedly. For days.

You might thank your wife

In your moments of clarity, you’d thank your wife for everything she’s done for you. You’d say, “I appreciate you taking such good care of me.”

And you’d remember your “in sickness and in health” vows when she replied, “You do whatever it takes when you love someone as much as I love you.”

You’d ask your wife how she plans to keep your memory alive. She’d comfort you with a promise to never stop saying your name.

A few weeks later, you’d fall down the stairs and suffer an acute subdural hematoma. You’d be partially brain damaged, paralyzed on one side, and unable to swallow on your own. You’d require a ventilator to breathe and a feeding tube for sustenance.

But, what if you were the wife of a dying man who could no longer function on his own?

What would you do then?

You might delay the inevitable

If you’re like me, you’d keep your husband in the hospital for two weeks prolonging the inevitable. You’d curse the universe for not taking matters into its own hands.

Even though you talked at length about end-of-life care and you understood your husband’s wishes, you’d regret signing the papers that made you his patient advocate. The papers that said you’d decide for him if he couldn’t decide on his own.

But after a while, you’d feel guilty for letting him rot away in the hospital. So you’d go home and pull out your husband’s health care directive.

You’d stay up all night repeating the following line out loud to make sure you understood it correctly.

I do not want my life to be prolonged by providing or continuing life-sustaining treatment if I am terminally ill and life-sustaining procedures would only serve to artificially delay my death. I understand this decision would allow me to die.

You’d brush your fingers across his signature.

Intellectually, you’d understand the burdens of treatment outweigh any expected benefits. But emotionally, you’d require more proof to do the right thing.

Finally, after many agonizing hours reading and reading the “durable power of attorney with directions for health care,” you’d zero in on your signature next to the acceptance of your patient advocate role.

I understand and agree to take reasonable steps to follow the desires and instructions of the patient as indicated in written instructions and verbal discussions.

As your dying husband’s only voice, you’d march into the hospital the next day, requesting to remove the ventilator and feeding tube and bring him home with hospice.

You might both be grateful for a peaceful death

If you’re like my husband, you’d be glad you’re home and half-smile with the side of your face that isn’t paralyzed.

If you’re like me, you’d spend the next four days trying to keep your husband comfortable. But you’d buckle under the stress of administering far too many medications, fielding questions you can’t answer, and trying to comfort your inconsolable kids.

You’d watch your husband deteriorate. And squeeze his hand when you tell him it’s okay to go. Whenever he’s ready. But you’d be lying because you know full well it’s not okay and nothing will ever be okay again.

Then, the next morning he’d die in the home he loved, surrounded by his family. You’d be grateful for such a peaceful death and confident that, in the end, you did the right thing.

What then?

If you’re the widow struggling to move forward, what would you do then?

If you’re like me, you’d continue running your dead husband’s business five years later because the thought of ending his legacy is more than you can bear.

And you’d keep your promise to never stop saying his name.

A widow on a quest to make widowhood suck a little less. Offering practical tips and resources for widows managing grief and loss at www.widow411.com.

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