Ask Dr. Giles: My husband passed very quickly, we didn’t have a chance to say that last goodbye.

Darla writes:

My husband passed away from Cholangiocarcinoma after only 7 short weeks. He was not even definitively diagnosed until 1 week before he died. At that time he was given 6 months without any treatment. A week later we were told he only had a short time left, possibly up to a month. He passed away the next morning 9/2/08 at 8:55AM at the age of 62. This all happened so quickly. Up until then he was healthy with just a few aches & pains. Needless to say I was totally in shock at first. I had been planning to take him home & into hospice care. It was a stress filled 2 months & then there was nothing. I am now feeling that I was robbed of so much. There was so much left unsaid & undone. I am tormented by this wondering what I could have or should have done differently I have so many regrets, even thought I know that I had no control over this & it is really no ones fault except this terrible disease. We have know each other since I was 15 & were married 41 years & together almost all of the time. Needless to say this has left a huge void in my life. I just don’t know how to deal with the what if’s & that fact that I feel there was no real closure. We didn’t even have a chance to say that last goodbye. How do I start to deal with all of this & will it ever get any better?

Darla, I am so sorry to hear of your husband’s passing. By my math, it appears that two-thirds of your life was spent in association with him as your friend and husband. How wonderful!

The void created by his loss–whether sudden or predicted–must certainly be, as you say, huge. There is mixed opinion among my clients and other associates whether it is better to lose a loved one gradually or suddenly, and I am still undecided about it. What is clear to me, however, is that losing a loved one suddenly results in fairly consistent experiences for those left behind.

With sudden loss, those left behind experience a sense of lost control. The loss of the loved one occurred against their wishes and with little time to prepare. As a result, those left behind can conclude that they are very vulnerable in a treacherous world which is fraught with danger. To combat against those very uncomfortable feelings of not having much control over our circumstances, sometimes we spend time reflecting on what we (or others) could have done to create a different outcome. Your struggles, Darla, with the “what if’s” are an example of this: “what if I would have insisted that he see a doctor sooner,” or “what if we had gotten a second opinion,” or “what if I would have stayed up longer with him the night before he died,” etc. These thoughts are an attempt to regain a sense of control over heartbreaking circumstances, but ultimately it is not a very useful way to think.

The pain and ache of his loss is something you need not fear nor attempt to avoid. Those feelings are normal and a testament to how much he (and your relationship to him) meant to you. There is a sweetness in that sorrow which is good for us to experience. It can be cleansing to our heart and mind. He certainly will be dearly missed by you and others. While currently his absence dominates your thoughts and feelings, there will come a day in the near future when they will loom less large and, like the sun breaking through the clouds, the forty-plus years you spent with him will shine through with satisfying and comforting memories.

True closure will come as you rediscover the overall satisfaction you had in your life with your husband. It wasn’t as long as you would have liked, but I expect you will eventually conclude that the quality, rather than the quantity, was what truly mattered. By your brief description of your relationship with him, I suspect he knew that you loved him. I also suspect he loved you a great deal, too.

Give yourself some time to grieve, Darla. Share your grieving experiences with those who can listen and be supportive–those who can handle that fact that it’s going to take some time before you are 100% again. Go easy on yourself and be kind to yourself. If you can be patient with your grieving and honor the feelings you have, you may find grieving for your husband to be a healing and fulfilling experience.