In January, father of four Steve Dempsey lost his wife to cancer. In his new weekly column, he writes about saying goodbye
The night before my wife’s funeral I asked my four boys to draw pictures that we could put in her coffin. Someone had told me this was a good way to help them take an active part in saying goodbye, seeing her body. It sounded like a good idea. So we drew some pictures on the kitchen table. It wasn’t too bad. It was almost fun.
The hard bit came the next morning when we arrived at the Funeral Directors’. They didn’t want to go in. They were afraid to see her in the coffin. Afraid of the funeral ahead. They wanted nothing to do with it. After some wheedling and negotiation, one of them cracked and said he’d do it. Then, they were all in — One for all and all for one, and all that.
In life, Kate was highly animated. She had big eyes and a big smile. She was always moving, always on the verge of breaking into song or dance, hugging someone, laughing. The body in the coffin was not like this. It was a poor imitation of the real thing. The boys were badly shaken by this waxwork version of their mother.
They put their pictures in the coffin without a word and legged it. One was so upset he wouldn’t go into the church for the funeral. He sat in the atrium with his uncle, his head between his knees for the whole ceremony.
Months later, they’re all dealing with grief in different ways. One is bottling it up. Another is sleepless, restless, and angry at the world. The twins, who are only six, are exhibiting classic signs of puddle jumping — a term for how grieving children can move in and out of grief like they’re jumping in and out of puddles. Me? I’m fine. I really am. I think.
If I am, one of the reasons is that my wife died well — if such a thing is possible. Kate never hung about. She was an impatient patient. Her illness, a particularly aggressive cancer, was diagnosed in September. She was dead by January. So she packed a lot into those last few months — while she still had the energy.
She did practical stuff, like writing wills and transferring some, but not all, of the bills. Fun stuff, like planning Christmas and sorting presents. Difficult stuff, like talking about the children and the future she was going to miss. She bought little golden books for each of them and filled them with messages and sketches.
All the while there was surgery, a small amount of chemotherapy and a small dose of optimism that didn’t last. She was in hospital for most of November. Her kidneys stopped working. On December 1 she was given weeks to live. She asked her consultant would she see Christmas. “We hope so”, he said. She came home that day.
Her aim was to see the twins’ birthday on December 14 and have Christmas at home. Out of pure pig-headedness, and with the help of the amazing staff from St Francis Hospice, she did both.
We put a TV in her room and she watched non-challenging TV — a lot of This is Us. Sometimes we held hands and talked. Mostly, she slept. Her mother and I deputised for the hospice staff and night nurses when they weren’t around.
We became dab hands at emptying nephrostomy bags. I kept a diary of all the drugs she took and when she took them — Keflex, Omeprazole, OxyContin, Levoprome — days and nights were measured in drugs, not hours. After Christmas, she said to me, “we have to do something.” This meant it was time to leave home for the last time. She died in St Francis Hospice, Blanchardstown, on January 4. She was 46.
A few days previously, I brought the boys in to see her. She wasn’t able to stay awake for long — just a few minutes. She knew it was the last time she’d see them, I think. She was weak and in terrible pain, but she put on a brave face, smiled and hugged them and told them she’d see them soon. At the time it seemed like just another parting.
Looking back, I don’t think I appreciated how strong she was — and how brave. How well she said her goodbyes and how much I would owe her for that.
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