What Losing My Husband to a Terminal Illness Taught Me About Life After Grief
May 31, 2018 was the first of a few worst days of my life. It was the day my husband of 14 years received his kidney cancer diagnosis—a diagnosis so serious that within four days he was sent from one emergency room to another, then to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for what was basically a last ditch effort at treatment.
It was at MD Anderson that one of his oncologists looked at us and said, "You're staring down the barrel of a gun. If you do nothing, you have days to weeks to live. If you choose treatment, the prognosis isn't good. It's a Hail Mary pass at this point."
What followed was horrific, painful, and excruciatingly hard to bear, both emotionally and physically. It involved extended stays in the hospital, repeated trips to emergency rooms, phone conversations with on-call doctors at 3:00 a.m. I watched my seemingly healthy husband go from working out five times a week to being unable to walk without assistance in a matter of days. I became his primary caregiver—feeding him, bathing him, changing his clothes, emptying his bodily fluids from catheters, and trying to keep him clean, dry, and alive.
Lance and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary on July 5, 2018 surrounded by family as he laid in an ICU hospital bed, barely awake or communicative. We all shared cake, ice cream, and champagne. We cheered when Lance managed to take his pills masked in icing.
That was the same day the doctor told me it was time to take him home on hospice. My brother, also a doctor, looked me in the eye and nodded his head, confirming the harsh reality. I held it together in front of Lance, but when my sister and I took a walk around the hospital, I collapsed on the floor and bawled as she held me and cried by my side.
We went home two days later, assuming Lance would never truly be conscious again. But, to our surprise, we were given a small miracle. He perked up and ate, talked, and played video games. He showed me how to pay our bills and find our passwords. He continued with the cancer drugs we had at home. He fought. For me.
He and I hoped, prayed, held hands, and talked about "after his surgery"—both of us clinging to the dream that he would become a candidate for surgery if he could hang on just a little longer.
That wasn't meant to be.
On August 7, 2018—just 69 days after his diagnosis—I held him in my arms and whispered in his ear that it was OK to let go, that I'd figure out how to go on. I told him how much I loved him. Then, he took his last breath.
I don't know how to explain what it's like to watch the person you thought you'd spend your whole life with die. To give them permission to leave you because they'd never do so voluntarily. To know that when they leave, they're gone forever. And the life you built, the life you planned, the life you dreamed of together, leaves with them.
But when I promised him that I'd figure out how to be OK, I meant it. I was just 36 years old, so I knew I might live more of my life without him than I did with him. Caving to victimhood wasn't a long-term solution.
Short term, sure. I let myself experience grief and depression. When it comes to things like that, sometimes there's no way out but through. And making it through means allowing the feelings to take their course. Still, I knew I would be letting him down if I wasn't proactive in finding a way to be happy again.
I decided the best antidote to death would be life. I told myself I would say yes to anything that reminded me that I was alive and that life was worth living.
I started CrossFit. I got a memorial tattoo. I did trauma-based eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. I went skydiving. Then, as the holidays drew closer—Thanksgiving, his birthday, Christmas, and New Year's were all within six weeks of each other—I knew I needed to make plans. I decided to take a solo trip to Costa Rica, a place he and I always wanted to go but never did.
That trip changed everything for me. I went zip lining and whitewater rafting. I took a surf lesson and caught my first wave. It was the most fun I'd had in over six months.
After my surf lesson, I hung out with a group of surf instructors and watched the sun set over the ocean. I sat on the balcony of a restaurant, drank beer, listened to music, and felt the ocean breeze on my face. It was the first time I felt my grief lift.
That night I had sex with a man I'll call P. It wasn't something I expected to happen. But after three months of almost no intimate human interaction, and even longer since having sex, the feel of lips on my lips and hands on my body was intoxicating. It was confusing and hard in some ways, but healing and life-giving in others. He and I ended up spending the next two days together, but there was safety in knowing P lived in a foreign country and the risk of attachment was minimal.
I then went back home and returned to work. I went back to my empty house that was filled with things that reminded me of my husband. It was then, when I returned from that trip, that I knew I couldn't continue living there. It was time to start letting go of the life we'd built together.
I decided to ignore all of the advice people gave me about not making major decisions while grieving. When P asked me to return to Costa Rica, I went. Then I went again. And again. I stayed in his hometown and met his family. I started to learn Spanish and continued to learn how to surf.
After three months, P and I ended our relationship, but the freedom and happiness I'd experienced in Costa Rica was something I couldn't ignore.
In May of 2019, after many hours of conversation with my therapist, family, and friends, I packed up my belongings and headed to Costa Rica indefinitely. I moved into a house near the beach, and shortly after, I reignited my relationship with P.
Relationships after significant loss are confusing, and my relationship with P is no different. It's dramatic in some ways, but layered with affection in others. It can be hard to be with someone else, but the good times have made the pain of trying worth it.
I've now been living in Costa Rica for six months. I've become a better surfer, watched plenty of oceanfront sunsets, had some really hot sex, ridden horses, seen sea turtles lay eggs, made new friends, and found a community. On October 31, I opened a sports bar and community center in the tiny town of El Llano, Guanacaste. It's named the Lions and Butterflies Sports Bar—a nod to the courage, strength, hope, and transformation we all need to make it through life.
I know not everyone who goes through hardship has the option to move to a different country. I believe the lesson in my story is that this isn't the life I dreamed of. It isn't the life I wanted. It is, however, a life that's full and beautiful. Choosing to live, to say yes to things that scare me, is the best way I can honor my husband and the person that I now have to be apart from him.
I'm not over my grief and I haven't moved on from my loss. I don't think I ever will, nor will I ever understand why this happened. But I'm committed to appreciating the gift of life. I hope every day that he's smiling down on me, proud of the person I'm becoming. On the hard days, that image helps.
How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.