Embracing Life in the Face of Death

I happened to come across a transcript of an interview where a woman had asked an advice columnist about confronting her cheating husband. The woman is dying of cancer with only a few months left to live, and though her husband is attentive, loving, and caring (he takes care of her in addition to caring for her), he is having an affair. When she first found out, she was heartbroken, but after a few days she realized he deserved to have someone help and support him during such an emotional time. Her question revolved around whether or not she should confront him. Should she tell him she understands? Should she let him know that she forgave him and didn’t want him to feel guilty?

Thousands of people left comments, most condemning the husband for having an affair, though some condemned her for her attitude, thinking she was too insecure to stand up to him. It does sound terrible, doesn’t it, the husband cheating on his dying untitledvwife? And maybe he is a cad, but as his wife said, “He has been amazingly supportive of me during this time. We have no kids, and as my health has declined, he has sat with me through endless doctor appointments, hospital stays, and sleepless nights.”

The advice columnist and the respondents to this article seemed to miss the salient issue, that death changes the world of those involved. We all know the stages someone who is dying undergoes — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But what no one talks about is that when a couple is deeply connected, both people are affected, and in many ways, the person being left behind is the one who suffers most. You not only have the care of the person you deeply love, you have to watch them suffer, have to see them waste away, maybe even have to endure unpleasant personality changes caused by both the illness and the drugs they need to keep the pain at bay. And there is nothing you can do about it. You can make them as comfortable as possible, but nothing you do will ever change the facts of your life. S/he is dying, and you have to live.

Many things happen during this horrific time. As your spouse retreats from life, you retreat from death. This is not a matter of vows, but a matter of self-preservation. Too often, you feel as if you are also being drawn into death, and even though part of you doesn’t care, the more visceral part of you cares deeply.

At some point during a long dying, there is a disconnect. You disconnect from yourself, your life, your dying spouse. It’s not conscious, in fact often you don’t always know what is happening, but the truth is, distancing yourself emotionally from the unbearable situation is the only way you can survive. And your hormones go wacky. Sometimes your libido disappears; other times it goes into overdrive. Sometimes you are tormented by overwhelmingly painful arousals. Sometimes you fall in love or desperately need to feel someone’s arms around you, especially if your terminal partner cannot bear being touched any more. This does not mean you love your spouse less. It means your lizard brain, your body, your visceral nature are all screaming in the face of death and will do anything to keep you connected to life.

Although not everyone has an affair during a long dying, all of us in that situation have done things we were not proud of. As I wrote in Grief: The Great Yearning, “It’s been said that every behavior is a matter of survival, which I suppose is true in my case. I could feel myself fighting to live, to gain more autonomy, but that struggle manifested itself in impatience, irritability, and resentment. I think I was angry at his condition and took it out on him. When I remember all the years I swallowed my feelings in deference to his illness, it appalls me that at the end, I couldn’t sustain it. I am so not the person I thought I was!”

Soon the wife will be gone, and the man in question will reconnect to himself and life. If he is a good person who had to deal with an untenable situation, he will probably be wracked by guilt for what he did to his wife. He needs to know that she knew, that she understood and forgave him, but she doesn’t need to do it while she is alive. She can write a letter for him to find after she is gone. Because that is the truth. She will be gone. And he will still be here, dealing with grief, regrets, guilt.

Admittedly, I don’t know the entire situation, but neither does anyone else who responded to the article. But I do know what it’s like to try to live while someone is dying, and the truth is, you will never know what you are capable of, both heroic and base, until you yourself are trying to embrace life while someone you love deeply is, however unwillingly, embracing death.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+