Gaining insight about life, death and true love

Deana Stokes Sullivan
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It was getting close to Christmas, mid-December 2011. My husband Eugene and I took our traditional trip to our cabin on the Southern Shore and cut a tree from a tangly overabundance of pine and fir.

We decided this would be our last natural Christmas tree. It was too much effort, year after year, picking one out, transporting it home, pruning and then dismantling it after the holidays.

After the usual routine of straightening the tree in its holder and both of us decorating it, I snapped a few photos to capture the glow of the coloured lights on the ornaments.

I had an unexplainable, sinking feeling that next Christmas would be different, a feeling that this Christmas was special, but also some deep-seated sadness.

In early January 2012, with holiday decorations still adorning the house, my husband began experiencing extreme back pain. It puzzled doctors who kept sending him home from hospital, but I knew that the accompanying swollen lymph nodes wasn’t a good sign.

After much persistence, he was admitted and testing began that led to a diagnosis of lymphoma.

At the hospital one day, while he was undergoing one of the many procedures required to determine his specific type of lymphoma, I picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest. And who should be on the cover but Olivia Chow, wife of the late NDP leader Jack Layton. The headline read, “Life After Jack.”

I read the article and pondered how devastating it must feel to lose a spouse. I couldn’t fathom it, yet I felt like I needed to face it, feel the pain and personally relate to her loss.

In months preceding this, having covered health at The Telegram for many years, I learned about an online blog written by Dr. Lydia Hatcher, titled “My Near Death Experiences.”

She started writing it about her experiences with patients facing death in her family practice and it evolved into a diary about her own life, facing her husband’s deteriorating health and eventually his death.

In some strange way, it seemed like it wasn’t a coincidence that I was being exposed to this. I couldn’t resist reading her entries and somehow sharing in her grief. I think something was preparing me for my path ahead.

I took six months off work and stayed by my husband’s side, caring for him and encouraging him, as he endured severe side-effects from pain medications and chemotherapy and muscle atrophy from being immobile.

The support of my employer and co-workers at The Telegram was overwhelming. Like extended family, they stayed in touch with me and supported me during my leave of absence.

Another cancer tumour was found in my husband’s chest after months of treatment for lymphoma. His chemo had to be reassessed and a new course of treatment offered, this time including radiation. I prayed that I would have more time with him. I wasn’t about to give up on him now and wasn’t ready to lose him.

In late May, he surprised the doctors. He was able to walk a little with a walker, was eating well and overall improving. They decided to send him home just days before our 26th wedding anniversary. He was extremely happy about that.

It was a challenge, but we were up for it. In the following weeks, he progressed to walking with a cane and then on his own. He went back to driving and leading as normal a life as possible when outpatient cancer treatments and blood transfusions are still a regular routine.

But, around Thanksgiving weekend last year, I noticed he was getting increasingly tired and extreme pain was radiating through parts of his body. He eventually lost all use of one arm and we received the bad news: the cancer had spread, invading his brain and bones.

I was still determined to keep him home with me, against his doctors’ advice. They were worried it would be too much for me to care for him. When the pain became too severe for the medication we had at home, he asked me to take him to palliative care. I still insisted that if they got his pain under control, he would come back home.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. He spent two nights in palliative care, with me lying by his side, and passed away Dec. 3, 2012.

What I had to face afterwards was daunting. I had never had to deal with funeral and burial arrangements for anyone before, let alone my husband.

He always told me if he died before me not to spend money on him, to cremate his remains. But I felt that wasn’t an option. I strived to give him the best in his last days and I was committed to doing the same in death.

His body was ravaged enough by biopsies, radiation, chemotherapy and drugs that I didn’t want more inflicted upon it. I opted for a traditional funeral.

I made the call to Barrett’s Funeral Home that night before leaving palliative care. I was told to stop by in the morning and discuss the arrangements. It was hard leaving the hospital that night, but I felt as if his spirit was leaving with me.

At home the next morning, I had to pick out a suit and other clothing to bring to the funeral home. With family members by my side, I nervously walked in, not knowing what to expect.

A funeral director with a calming presence and professional manner greeted me. As we engaged in discussion, I felt more comfortable.

Ed Avery, funeral director and manager at Barrett’s, asked a lot of questions about his interests and hobbies and made the arrangements around them. Everything from the casket, a natural light wood grain, to the family flowers, with autumn colours and berries, would reflect his down-to-earth attitude and love of nature, hunting and fishing.

And, almost as if he could read my mind, he brought up a topic I had already thought about, while we were discussing the burial plans.

“I know you’re a young woman,” he began cautiously, and then proceeded to ask if I was interested in a single or double plot.

There was no question about having my resting place next to him, now that I had the chance. My husband had told his doctors, despite what he was going through, he felt at ease and could sleep well as long as I was beside him.

“If you remarry at some time in the future and don’t want it, you could sell it,” Avery also advised me. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied. “I don’t make such decisions lightly.”

Anything that happens in my future will never erase the 30 years we spent together. It’s very much a part of the person I am today and my husband will always hold a special place in my heart.

I do believe, however, that love isn’t one-dimensional. Our hearts have a bigger capacity to love more than just one person. It happens when we have children whom we love equally and unconditionally.

I learned a lot more about this in July 2012. My husband wasn’t home from hospital long when our daughter was about to give birth to her first child. She wanted me to be at the hospital with her for the delivery.

I seriously wondered, with the stress I was enduring, if I would be capable of loving a new little human being, deserving of so much love.

My husband was supportive of me leaving his side to be with our daughter and her husband that night. There was no question when I saw our granddaughter’s beautiful little face emerge on Canada Day, my heart overflowed with love. The little angel was wide-eyed, looked straight at me and smiled softly, when I first held her in my arms.

My husband had the opportunity to get to know two granddaughters born last year. A third grandchild, a baby boy, was just born this week on Monday night. Ironically, he told doctors before his death that we had three grandchildren, almost as if he knew in advance of anyone else.

The funeral service was more of a celebration of his life than a mournful remembrance. Rev. William Mercer noted how life-affirming our infant granddaughter’s cries were, particularly during a Bible reading from Ecclesiastes 3 — “To everything, there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun, a time to be born and a time to die …”

My daughter read a beautiful tribute to her father. She was pleased that the service was uplifting and didn’t focus solely on the loss.

When I mentioned this to our funeral director, he said, “That’s what we aim to do.”

I can’t express how thankful I am to him and the staff at Barrett’s for helping my family through such a difficult time. Their jobs have to be difficult, dealing with death on a daily basis and, despite that, they help ease the pain for others experiencing grief and loss.

Doctors and nurses aim to save lives, but when that hope is lost, I believe the people who help us through the even darker days are like guardian angels, there to offer guidance and comfort through the final stages. I like to think they also help our loved ones transition from this physical world to a new realm that none of us truly understands.

My husband and I shared a stronger bond than I ever believed possible in his last year. And, his courage taught me to be stronger than I ever imagined. I believe he shared with me a little bit of heaven before departing this physical world. An overwhelming feeling of tranquility passed through my body, as I held his hand tightly, close to my heart. I still sense his spirit around me almost every day.

Death and dying is part of the whole circle of life. But I believe the strong bonds we form during our lives will never die, that kindred spirits are forever united. I also believe all the love, joy and sorrow I’ve experienced has moulded me into a much stronger, more caring person.

I’m thankful to my husband for teaching me how to have courage and strength in the face of adversity, as well as those who offered support and guidance. I now have a much greater understanding of life and true love.

Organizations: The Telegram

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Recent comments

  • Pam Hefford
    October 09, 2013 - 20:48

    Thank you for sharing , My heart breaks for you. Just know that his spirit is with you forever. The love you shared and the memories you have will be always with you. Please accept my deepest sympathy.

  • Jackie
    October 09, 2013 - 14:00

    Deana: Such a beautiful tribute to Eugene. Your life together was amazing. The love you shared for each other is very evident and Eugene is and will be with you every step of your journey. I think about you often.

  • Rosalind Piercey
    October 09, 2013 - 10:03

    This is a beautiful story of Love and Commitment! thank you for sharing this from your heart, to truly cherish those we love around us is so important. I am married and we have 3 beautiful children, I love them all! God Bless you and your family!!

  • Mike Strong
    October 09, 2013 - 09:20

    Thank you Deana for sharing.

  • Sue Peddle
    October 09, 2013 - 09:16

    Hi Deana: I heard about your loss and Bill and I were so sorry to hear that Eugene had passed. Bill used to play in a band with him, back too many years ago :) However, I am writing to tell you how eloquently you wrote about the love between you and Eugene. It touched my heart. I hope you will always feel his presence around you. And I think you will. It was a very brave story to put out there publicly and I am proud I know you, the writer :) and person :)

  • Callista Silver
    October 09, 2013 - 07:12

    Wow, I have such a lump in my throat right now. My heart breaks for you, as a 46 year old married women with a wonderful husband and daughter I realize how lucky I am. Yet, the loss of my Dad this June, and my Mom in January 2009 has left me with such an unexplainable feeling . I make sure to still celebrate in my own little way, their birthdays, anniversary, etc. as I love celebrations. But as you talked about the Christmas tree in your article, tears came to my eyes, the thought of neither Mom or Dad with us for anymore celebrations makes me so sad. I found comfort in your article, speaking of find in love in other people and the spirit living on. Thank you for taking the time to write such a heartwarming article. Find comfort in your family, I know I do.

  • Charmaine
    October 09, 2013 - 07:04

    Beautifully written and thoughtful article. Sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you.