"I'm doing well, all things considered": Coping with the loss of a loved one

Written By ELLICSR

​Editor's note: On June 8, ELLICSR celebrated National Cancer Survivors Day. The day began with a keynote talk from Dr. Gary Rodin followed by a panel discussion on emotional wellness and cancer. Panelist Jon Eddington was the primary caregiver for his wife who passed away from cancer just 6 months ago. Here is his full speech.

Image of Jon Eddington
Jon Eddington shares his story at National Cancer Survivors Day 2015

Three years ago my wife, Jeanne, was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. When discovered, the cancer had already started to spread so it was too late for surgery and radiation. We knew that she was terminal. We had three years to grieve and to prepare. She died December 15th, just six months ago.

In my ten minutes presentation, I plan to share some of the things my family has learned from this experience. I will try to provide some insight into how and why we have been so successful coping with the tragedy of the loss of a wife and mother, when so many other people have a much harder time coping.

I’m going to begin my presentation with a summary of the talking points or takeaways I want to share with you. This will give you a framework before we get into the details of our experience.

  1. The first takeaway is the word resilience. Resilience is the ability to cope with whatever life throws at you.
  2. The second takeaway is the word practice. Having faced cancer before strengthened our ability to cope the next time and the time after that.
  3. We used every resource available. We took advantage of community services and we used the Internet to seek out other resources, both educational and medical.
  4. We reached out to others. We didn’t face this alone and when we knew there was no hope, we grieved publicly.
  5. We built new memories. We built new memories to take my wife’s mind off her treatments,and to give my family memories to carry us forward after she died.
  6. We faced my wife’s inevitable death head on. We did’t hide from the truth. We didn’t pretend there was going to be a cure when there wasn’t one.
  7. I wasn’t afraid to think the unthinkable. I began thinking about what I would do after she died. Should I sell the house? Should I remarry? I felt guilty at first. Then I realized that even while I was still caring for her, I needed to take care of my own emotional needs.
  8. That is the eighth takeaway. I was willing to take care of my own emotional needs.
  9. We told her story, celebrated her life and the life we had together, and we created a lasting legacy: “In the end, all that remains are our stories. Everything else is impermanent. Stories are the secret to immortality.” (Aimee Heckel, Huffington Post)

The following is our story:

Our parents survived the Great Depression and the Second World War. They taught us to be resilient. This is a skill that can be learned, and we taught our children that no matter what happens, make the best of a bad situation.

My wife had breast cancer twice before, once 23 years ago, and again 13 years ago. I’m ashamed to say that both times she was diagnosed I gave her very little support. Fortunately these cancers were discovered early, required only minor surgery and radiation and we returned to normal. Or at least as normal as one can after a diagnosis of cancer.

This time, when my wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer we started going to Gilda’s Club together.

  • We used every resource available in the community - ELLICSR, Willow, Gilda’s Club, and the CCAC. We requested tours of three hospice care facilities so that my wife could decide where she wanted to go when the time came.
  • We used the Internet as a resource to learn as much as possible about the disease and about cancer research.
  • And we engaged the help of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours.

Some people hide the fact that they have cancer. We took the opposite approach. We grieved publically. We reached out to everyone we knew. I created distribution lists for e-mail and snail-mail with over 400 addresses. Our daughter and son used Facebook and social media extensively.  We only communicated when we had something important to say and we always balanced bad news with other news.

When people said “Please let us know what we can do to help,” I noted who offered. When the time came and we needed help, I wasn’t afraid to ask. For example, when I had to have a hernia operation, I called six different couples and asked each of them if they would be willing to bring lunch for the four of us to share. We made a social occasion of it. The people were delighted to be asked. They couldn’t do anything about my wife’s cancer, but my asking gave them something tangible they could do.

When we joined Gilda’s Club we were no longer isolated. Gilda’s is one big happy family. It’s comfortable. We could be ourselves, share our concerns, and get lots of hugs. Everyone is very understanding. It’s all about people helping people.

My wife was a remarkable and very brave woman. Despite having been diagnosed with terminal cancer she wanted to continue to enjoy life in every possible way. She wanted new experiences, things she could look forward to that would take her mind off her treatments. And we wanted to build a legacy of memories to carry us forward after she’s gone.

  • Two years ago in May, my wife and I flew to Australia to spend three weeks with our daughter. My wife photographed kangaroos, pet koala bears, and sampled some of the best wines Australia has to offer.
  • Then that October and November was an even more adventurous trip. This time it was six weeks in South America. We celebrated our 49th wedding anniversary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then boarded a cruise ship and sailed through the Panama Canal and down the Pacific coast, around Cape Horn, and north to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

By April of last year, my wife’s fatigue was overwhelming. Two years of chemotherapy had taken a terrible toll. She had reached the point where her quality of life was more important than prolonging her quantity of life by several months at most.

In May last year, she decided to stop all further treatments. It was her decision and reluctantly, we supported her. My wife called a family conference, told us her wishes, and dictated her own obituary. With that out of the way, she had a terrific summer. Within a month she had regained her strength, vitality, and zest for life. Every day she went out for a walk along the lake and soon she could walk two kilometers before stopping to rest. Knowing that someday soon I would have to fend for myself, she taught me how to cook. We started going to movies again, and to Stratford, and to friends’ cottages for the day. My wife was tired, but with each passing week she had more energy and endurance. Life was good.

In September, my wife’s energy and endurance began to decrease. On October 4th, despite all of Jeanne’s predictions that she wouldn’t live that long, we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. I rented a big banquet facility. We invited as many old friends, neighbours, and family as the venue could hold. Jeanne was radiant and in her glory. After dinner, I told the story about how Jeanne and I first met. I ended my anniversary speech with a toast to my wife: my best friend, my inspiration, the love of my life, and a truly remarkable and very brave woman. Jeanne received a standing ovation. We were experiencing the greatest challenge we’ve ever had to face but we were doing so with grace, elegance, and humour. Gilda Radner’s life story was all about humour in the face of adversity. And believe me, we needed it.

Three weeks after our 50th Anniversary party my wife collapsed. I called 911. Jeanne was taken to hospice care at Toronto East General Hospital. We knew that she would not be coming home.

Every year Gilda's Club invites one family to tell their story. This year the focus was about caregivers. We were asked because we are an ideal model of how a family can work together to do it well. In November 2014, my son, Alex, and I told my wife's story at the Gilda's Club Annual Fund-Raiser show "It's Always Something." We were on stage at the Sony Centre before a sold out audience of 3,150 people. My son and I were not nervous because we felt the warmth radiating from the audience. It was a wonderful experience.

Our family is so lucky to have this kind of support network, and we don’t take it for granted. In the palliative wing at Toronto East General, my wife was the only patient we could see that was almost never alone.

A measure of how many people Jeanne influenced during her life is in the outpouring of over 700 messages, letters, and cards we received before and following her death. After she died on December 15th, just before the holidays, my daughter and son and I called and accepted all the invitations we had originally turned down. We were surrounded by family and friends the whole holiday season. It was the best thing we could have done to help us begin our recovery. We held our own private family service immediately after she died.

My wife had told us she wanted a public celebration of her life, like an Irish Wake with an open bar, and not in a church or funeral home. Two weeks ago, on May 24th, we held her Memorial Service and Life Celebration. It was in the same banquet hall overlooking Lake Ontario where we had held our 50th Wedding Anniversary party in last October. The place was packed—standing room only.

We dealt actively with our grief, did everything we could to help her, and she knew how much she was loved. I don’t feel guilty because I know there was nothing more I could have done.

But it has been much more difficult for my daughter and son. Losing a mother is very hard. In many ways it is much harder for them than for me. I am doing everything I can to help them grieve the loss of their mother. We are spending a lot of time together. We have planned three major trips this year. They said they wanted to keep me busy, but it is really for them.

It is now June, 2015, six months since my wife died. I have been focusing on the 50 wonderful years we did have together, and not grieving over the times we won’t have together in the future. I’m still grieving, but in my state of grief I am making progress, seeming most often to move forward with only the occasional looking back. I’m selling my house in the Beach to my son Alex and his wife Caley. I’m buying a condo in Market Square and will be moving there in August.

People ask me how I’m doing and I always say the same thing: “I’m doing very well, all things considered.” My life is continuing to evolve. I'm meeting new friends, women I can respect and go out with, to dinner and to cultural events and to the theatre. Someday, if I’m lucky, I may meet someone I can fall in love with and she with me.

“Life is as good as it can be, all things considered.”