Rage against the dying of the light

A terminally ill husband can anger, even infuriate, his loving wife

Rage against the dying of the light


Anger and annoyance are often dirty little secrets for women whose husbands are terminally ill. Sometimes the wife is furious at her husband for smoking and causing his own cancer. At other times she is riled when she has to clean up after him because he won’t wear adult diapers, viewing them as “babyish and feminine.”

In The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook, author and widow Diana Denholm urges wives to write down everything that upsets them as the first step in the process toward fewer fights and more peace.

“Nothing that affects you is off-limits to your list. Whether it is a toilet seat that stays up, disrespectful behaviour, or crumbs in the bed: if it bothers you, it should be on your list.” Denholm, whose partner was diagnosed with colon cancer a month after he proposed to her, illustrates with examples from the women she interviewed. “Cathy” wrote: “What I hate most is when I’m trying to fix him a meal, he gets in my way. Then something falls or spills and he has a fit and he threatens to pack a bag and move out. Sometimes, I wish he would move out!” Later, the same woman writes, “Gee, what am I supposed to do about the smell? His bedroom has such a smell—it makes me sick to go in to help him. Yes, he’s got a colostomy bag, but he has the strength to get up and take care of himself.” On her list, “Fran” wrote: “I pray his death will be peaceful. But I really need to know when he’ll die. Yes, I feel guilty about wanting this to be over. But how much more can I take?”

Once the list is compiled, each issue should be categorized. Finances and funeral arrangements have to be discussed with the husband. Then there’s Category C, for “some of the nastier things that, even though true, would be hurtful to our husbands if we were to say them,” Denholm writes. It would be more helpful to voice them to a friend “because it stops the energy of anger from getting stuck in us where it can do harm.”

For instance, the following gripe from “Fran” belongs in Category C: “He complains that I don’t want to have sex with him, but he wouldn’t either if he had to look at what I do! Sometimes he has tubes hanging from ports in his chest that dangle in my face. Now how is that supposed to make me feel sexy?”

Next, set up an appointment to talk to your husband. “You can have special discussions to clarify and settle issues, creating what I call ‘Understandings.’ These Understandings are what will make life work,” writes Denholm. “For your husband, avoiding these discussions may be like refusing to make a will with the hope of fooling death.”

Denholm advises never starting one of these conversations with “We need to talk.” Instead, try, “I’d like to find a time to sit down and talk about some of my concerns and plans for the future. Would Thursday or Saturday be better?”

If he still refuses to talk, write a note or send an email, suggests Denholm, who was caregiver to her husband for 10 years, through the cancer diagnosis, congestive heart failure, a heart transplant and his death in 2006. “You may have to say: I realize you won’t talk about those things and I respect your choice. However, because I won’t have the information I need to do ‘X,’ I won’t be able to be involved with ‘X’ any longer.”

Food is a common contentious issue, she writes. “When we see our husbands have a decline in appetite, it sets off signals in our heads and hearts. Maybe people will think we’re not treating our husband well when they see him so skinny.” “Cathy” told her husband she would like to keep bringing dinner to the bedroom, but if what she was making wasn’t what he wanted, he should give her some ideas. “I really don’t want to start yelling at you when you don’t like what I bring.”

Finally, Denholm says wives should go to their sleeping husbands every night and whisper all the things they would say if they knew it was his last day. “It will make no difference to him, but it will make a difference to you. You’ll be able to have peace in your heart.”

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