It’s been 4.5 years since my late husband died of liver cancer. He kept his illness secret and made me do the same. I covered for him to honor his wishes not to tell his coworkers and his sisters and my own family. Even his father didn’t know the extent of what was wrong with him. Only his mother knew almost as much as I did, but I was his nurse for his last four months and knew everything.
While he wasted away at home with the terminal illness, he wanted to minimize his deterioration to our children, who weren’t stupid and could see he wasn’t “just not feeling well.”
Before that, he didn’t tell me for several months that he knew his illness was untreatable. During that time he was demanding and emotionally abusive in many ways–turns out, it was his way of preparing our teenage daughter and me for living without him. While he demoralized us, he distanced himself from our younger daughter with whom he already had little relationship. When he finally told me that he was going to die and that he only had a few months to live, he confessed that he’d known for months and was surprised he’d lasted as long as he had.
I grew up near the beginning of the Gen X generation when girls were still encouraged to get married young and be the perfect wives. My late husband began the slow training of his expectations as soon as we got married (I was 21). I wanted to have a good marriage, so I struggled to meet all his unreachable expectations and felt inadequate for most of our marriage–all the while trying to portray a perfect marriage so no one would see through my perceived failure. I know now that I wasn’t responsible for his expectations so ridiculous that a Stepford Wife wouldn’t have been successful at meeting them.
Without realizing it, I’d been trained to believe that his ways (including the ways his parents acted) were normal, and I had to change everything I believed to be accepted as a good and perfect wife. If ever a public crack in the façade was visible, I would be the one at fault and would pay for it in private.
This was a ridiculous amount of pressure to put on us–keeping his secrets. He stopped traveling for work and worked from home more and more often as his health diminished. I had to tell people that he was traveling so they wouldn’t wonder about his absence from church activities and the neighborhood. I had to work from home more often (something my boss discouraged) to help care for him. I had to give up friends and professional groups to be available to him because he refused to let anyone else be his nurse. I had to still present a happy persona as if everything was good and right in my world. All for a man I’d grown to hate for his abuse.
And I found myself in a weird place. Part of me did love him still. Another part of me was terrified of being alone because he’d instilled in me that I was incapable of making a decision without him. How was I going to survive without him?
He made me promise not tell anyone why he died. He made me promise not to have a funeral service or memorial for him. He didn’t want people to know he’d been weak or how much he really hated himself for not getting well.
I had to call all those people (his friends, his boss, his best friend, my family…) and tell them that he’d suddenly gotten ill, went to the ER, and died in ICU. The “suddenly” part made almost all of it a lie. “He died peacefully” was meant to make everyone else feel better.
The reality was that he died a slow, painful death over many months, and his body had given up. The peace didn’t come until the doctors finally gave him some morphine so he could relax. He died not long after–I don’t know how long after because I hadn’t slept in three days and had no sense of time. The eight hours we’d spent in the ER and ICU were excruciating, watching amazing medical personnel working hard to save a man who couldn’t be saved. The doctors who treated him were compassionate and kind to me, and they knew he was not going to make it. All they could do was make him comfortable until he passed.
I started this blog as a way to help me process everything I’ve been through. I can’t be the only widowed person out there who is also a survivor of abuse or the only one who wants to fight against the stereotypical, cultural expectations of what widowhood “looks like” to non-widowed people. The expectations for widows is often vastly different from those for widowers.
So many secrets. I’m sharing them here. In a way, I’m keeping those secrets still by using a pseudonym, but that’s okay for now.