Comforting memories: comforting people

Patey, Paul

The patients in the following two stories never met each other. Both are dealing with the same life task: adjusting to the recent death of a spouse of many years.

The comforters

Fifty-two years ago they married: two weeks ago Martha died. Thirty years ago George first had severe pain from a kidney stone: now this evening he once again suffers the agony of renal colic - another painful stone. Throughout Martha's last year, George was her main comforter. During his previous illnesses she comforted him. This time that comforter is but a treasured memory.

After our injection has reduced his pain, I mention his wife. He talks; I listen. His grief is dignified and reserved: he talks of her illness, but also of their meaningful life together. Later I tell him that the kidney pain may return. He can stay the night or return if the pain does. He departs. A son drives the vehicle home.

One hour after midnight he returns. Two young men accompany him. The pain is severe. Once again the strong injection abates the pain. Now he will stay the night. The son and son-in-law both have a quiet dignity about them, as does George. They are both reserved, as he is. They know he suffers both the pain of the recent death of his wife, and the pain of the moving kidney stone. They are pleased that the newer, more focused, pain has subsided. They respect his broader deeper pain of her death. After a brief gentle chat with the older man, the two younger men - the comforters - depart. Tomorrow they will return for him.

The new widow

Doris is well-groomed, gently dignified, alert, calm and well composed. She has come because she needs her blood pressure checked and her pills refilled. Her middle-age daughter-in-law is with her.

After a brief hello, I gently encourage her to tell me about her husband's illness. She knows I already know some of the story. He lost his appetite, became pale, vomited black stuff, and was seen by me a few weeks ago. I told them he probably had cancer in his stomach, and sent him to hospital. In hospital they found the cancer, found that it was blocking food from passing beyond his stomach, and did an operation to relieve the obstruction and hopefully prolong his life. A week or so later, while still in hospital and just a few minutes after talking to a son, her 83-year-old husband suddenly died peacefully in bed. That was four weeks ago. I listen as she briefly tells me the story. There is love in her telling, but no tears. She had the tears at home in previous days.

I inquire about their life together. She brightens, smiles, and tells me briefly about 63 years of happy marriage; a hard-working man who loved her, a happy home where four children grew; grandchildren now grown up, old age, and - for the last year of her husband's life - the burden of his early but progressing Alzheimer's disease. "We really had a good life. I am grateful."
"You are already able to get back to the good memories; back beyond the last four or five months, to the many years you shared together?"
"Oh my, yes, doctor. We had a good life together. It was the best part of life. I'm grateful for what we had."

In my mind I recall a wise lady with a fatal illness I met years ago who said to her husband, "When I am gone, be good to yourself for my sake. I know you will grieve for awhile. That's ok. I know you will miss me. I'm not going to be around anymore to be good to you. So be good to yourself for my sake."

I do not need to tell that story to this new widow, Doris. She already knows and she will be kind to herself - her husband's widow. Instead I say, "Please accept my sympathy on the death of your husband. Please accept my congratulations on more than 60 years of happy marriage."

Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Relationships | Relations

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.




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