My good friend’s sister died this week. She lost her battle with tongue cancer, claiming her life less than a year from her initial diagnosis.
She was only 42 years old.
It’s been haunting us ever since we heard the news. Not one day goes by that it doesn’t come up. We give voice to her memory and mourn for her husband and her children. There is something that feels so wrong about burying a young woman, a young mom.
My husband and I went to the wake on Tuesday to show our support for the family.
Her husband didn’t look any different than the last time I saw him, but his whole world had changed. He had watched his beloved wife struggle with the cancer. He was by her side when she had most of her tongue removed and could barely talk or eat. She suffered through radiation, only to have 3 cancer-free weeks before the tumors began to grow again. And it came back more aggressively than before. Her death marked a final relief from the daily suffering that her life had become.
Her husband is left behind to try to explain to their two boys, 3 and 5, that their mommy is never coming home. He held his head up, showing the unbelievable strength that he will need in years to come, as he explained to us the conversation he’d had with them. He had done some research, and ultimately decided that he had to tell them the blunt truth. That their mom was dead and gone forever. He worried that saying she “passed away” or “had moved on” would only serve to confuse them. He told us that the 5-year-old seemed to comprehend, but the 3-year-old didn’t yet. I doubt either of them will truly understand their loss until much later. My heart aches at the thought of them growing up without their mother.
Her father was the most coherent as I have seen him in years, despite his Alzheimer’s. It’s as if the shock and pain of having to bury his daughter jaunted him back to the current moment with sharp clarity. He stood stoically as a video montage of photos of his daughter played, silent tears streaming down his face. The only sign of his disease that day was his misbuttoned shirt and his backwards shoes that had been overlooked by everyone in their grief.
My friend, her brother, was in obvious pain but holding it together for his family. He had been in the hospital the night before, with blood pressure off the charts. They only let him leave because of his sister’s funeral, but they would have preferred to keep him for further testing. I watched him accept condolences and comfort his own teenage children.
The funeral home was filled with people when we left. People were saying their goodbyes to his sister or clustered around portraits scattered around the room. The pictures told the story of a joyful life that ended way too soon.
I am so sad for those two little boys who have to grow up without their mama. It truly hits home for me because my babies are so close in age at just 2 and 4. What would it be like for them if I were just gone one day? I can’t even imagine the hole in a young child’s heart that is caused when their mother dies. How many questions will they have one day about who she was and what she was like?
I wondered what our life would be like if I lost my husband. Would I be strong enough to carry on? Could I raise our family on my own? “Of course, you would,” my husband assured me, “You’d have to.” I know I would, but it would be devastating.
My heart hurts for this family. And it puts our small problems and minor complaints into their proper place, reminding us to be grateful for all that we have. We have a wonderful and healthy family, and we get to be whole for Christmas and this holiday season. And with good fortune, our children will grow up knowing support and love from both their mother and father.
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