What would you do if you suddenly found yourself widowed with four children, the oldest of whom is seven?
Turn back the clock roughly forty years and picture yourself in the following situation: You’re a bright, young woman working at your first job in a bank. Your father works in one too so that seems the most natural place to be and things are going well. You meet a handsome man, you fall in love and by the age of 21 you’re married. A few years later you have your first child and, like most women, you walk away from your job to become a stay-at-home mom.
There is one small challenge: You don’t have a driver’s license. It’s not that you didn’t want one, you just never quite got around to it. You’ve practiced driving on country roads and you know how it all works, but you just can’t do it officially. It’s not really a problem since you mostly live in areas with good bus service and when you move to the outskirts of a larger city, your husband runs the errands and happily takes you wherever you need to go. It works.
Before you know it, you’ve got four kids and your husband has a very respectable job as a school principal. No one in your community seems to have much money, and yet somehow you all get by. People are resourceful and supportive.
Then the bombshell: Your husband has colon cancer and you’re told that it’s spread to his liver; there’s nothing to be done. The next year your husband is gone and you’re left alone to pick up the pieces as a solo parent of four children ranging in ages from two to seven.
This is Judy’s story. Her husband Liam was in great health. He played many sports, never smoked and was by all outward appearances a healthy man. She doesn’t remember him ever talking about any symptoms, but then again, you just didn’t talk about things like that back then. Silence was the societal norm; your health was your own business. It was therefore not unusual for husbands and wives not to discuss their respective health issues.
Liam went to see his doctor when he began to experience a few unusual symptoms. Judy has no idea what those symptoms were; she only knows that his doctor told him he had hemorrhoids and if he lost ten pounds he would be fine. Interestingly, the diagnosis happened without an examination. In those days there were no rectal exams for such complaints.
The symptoms persisted, necessitating another trip to the doctor and this time Liam was told that surgery would be required to investigate the matter further. Judy was dismayed when the surgeon told her to stay home – he didn’t like having to go searching for family after surgeries. Thankfully her parents came to stay with her during that period since she couldn’t drive and she had four children at home. After the surgery Judy received a call from the doctor. In a matter-of-fact voice he informed her that he had found a tumour in Liam’s colon, it was clearly colon cancer. The bad news didn’t end there: there were also three spots on the liver. Nothing could be done. That was it. She had just been informed over the telephone in a business-as-usual way that her husband was dying.
Liam came home in terrible shape. Since Judy couldn’t drive him to the hospital, he had home care to help him deal with his colostomy. The latter proved to be very difficult for him. He was a proud, private person who now found himself in a position that had a lot of stigma associated with it. He was now forced to deal with devastating news and the indignity of a colostomy bag on top of it all. He went inwards, never ever discussing the results or his feelings.
Judy couldn’t process the information, nor could she talk about it with Liam. It was simply too terrifying to consider. Instead she focused on the children and survival: diapers, meals, school, activities and all the other facets of daily life. One day at a time.
Several months later the surgeon operated once again to see if the cancer had spread. (Sadly, there were far fewer diagnostic tools forty years ago.) It had. Once he received that information, Liam was never the same again. He went back to work as often as he could. People noticed his perseverance and his commitment. They also noticed his deterioration. Again, Judy and Liam simply could not think about the consequences. It was all too overwhelming and frightening.
Judy did however think about the fact that Liam did not have a will, nor did he have much life insurance. Their mortgage was in his name and while he did have mortgage insurance, there was wasn’t a great deal more. They clearly couldn’t alter the situation regarding life insurance, but they did need to do something about the will. They drove in silence to the lawyer’s office. Every time they looked at each other they cried, so they remained stoic and silent, each in their own separate space. It was the hardest thing they had ever done.
At the end of the school year, Liam gave the address at the graduation ceremony. He died a few days later.
The long road to freedom
Judy remembers little of the days following Liam’s death. She was in a state of total shock. Looking back she has no idea how she got through that period but she does know that family and friends stepped in to help in countless ways. Both sets of parents helped with the children and with finances. Thankfully, her mortgage was paid and her father, a banker, invested the small amount of life insurance to give her a monthly income. She didn’t need much to survive – that would do it if she was careful. Both grandfathers stepped in to act as father figures for the children for special events at school and on Father’s Day. There was a tremendous amount of support.
Liam’s death had left a huge hole in Judy’s life. The process of grieving was a difficult one, particularly since she still had to care for four children. She worked her way through the days and when the kids were in bed, she fell apart while listening to country music every night. Every little thing about her life was a challenge; it was exhausting and overwhelming. But she did it and every time she overcame a challenge, she gained personal power and self-confidence.
There was, however, one big remaining issue that others could not solve: Judy still didn’t drive. She’d had to depend on the kindness of family and friends to help her with groceries and errands. That clearly couldn’t last forever. Liam died at the end of June, and by July 16th Judy got her driver’s license at the age of 32. Now she could buy her own milk!
The driver’s license, and the first year without Liam, were a tremendous eye-opener. For years Judy had depended on Liam for so much of her life. Now, suddenly, she was in control. It was frightening, difficult – and liberating! Who knew that the world was such a big place! For years Judy had been restricted to her community, to places she could get to easily on foot. When she got her driver’s license she left home and, as she puts it, she hasn’t been home since! The whole year represented one liberation after another as Judy learned to take control of her life. Once you prove to yourself that you can do one minor thing, it empowers and propels you to more growth.
Through the process of learning to drive, Judy learned to take control of her life. And she has never looked back.
After such a remarkable and difficult set of experiences, it should come as no surprise that Judy has several recommendations for all women:
1. Don’t give up your day job when you have children, even if it means only working two days per week. Having your own employment gives you confidence and contacts. It also helps to keep you up-to-date with any changes going on in your industry.
2. Change your will every time something significant changes in your life (e.g. medical problems, the birth of a child, a separation, etc)
3. Ensure that you have enough insurance to help you live beyond paying off your house.
4. Dig into your parents’ medical history. Liam’s grandfather had died of colon cancer and yet nobody said anything until after Liam’s death. If they had known, they could have insisted that Liam’s doctor take action at the first sign of symptoms. Knowledge is the key to prevention.
5. Ensure that you have something to fall back on in case of a tragedy: a job, an education, and most importantly, self-confidence!
6. If you’re going through the grieving process, be patient with yourself. It took Judy one year just to believe that Liam wouldn’t come back and two years before she could look ahead with optimism. Grieving takes time.
If you know of someone who has experienced loss or a divorce, please tell her about this book project. I’d love to interview her.
My next blog post will be “What you don’t know – Cathy’s story”