The Mortality Club

Dying to be With You

January 15, 2017

Tags: death, dying, caregiver, grief

The Hindu ritual known as Sati during which the widow throws her body on the flames that are turning her husband’s corpse into ash is rarely practiced today. It was prevalent when the role of a Hindu woman was solely to service her man. When he died, her reason for living disappeared. She was declared in-valid, irrelevant, as though already dead. Grief so consumed her that she already felt like her flesh was already on fire. Jumping into the flames held no terror; only the promise of reuniting with her mate.

The ritual of Sati has beome virtually non-existent. That’s happened, in part, because widows are no longer regarded as in-valids who have lost their reason for being. Widows are no more likely than widowers to die, or to want to die, as a result of the death of their mate. The sense of loss that overwhelms when a loved one dies, is not gender-specific. It afflicts both men and women. And, it is not age-specific. Both young and old can be so consumed by grief that they choose to die rather than to live without their mate.

The story of Romeo and Juliet comes to mind. In Shakespeare’s play, both Romeo and Juliet died to be with the other. In order to avoid having to marry Count Paris, Juliet asks the Friar to give her a potion which will put her asleep and make her appear to be dead for forty-two hours. Unhappily, the Friar is unable to get the message to Romeo in time. When Romeo learns that his Juliet has died, he kills Count Paris and then drinks poison he has gotten from the apothecary. When Juliet awakes and finds Romeo dead, she is overcome with grief. Wanting nothing other than to reunite with her mate, she stabs herself to death with his dagger.

Older people do not have to resort to poison and daggers. The effect of grief on an aging heart can be enough. I have a friend who is in deep grief over the death of her parents. She maifests that grief by posting on Facebook on almost a daily basis photographs of the two of her parents taken at various points during their fifty years of marriage. My friend’s grief is particularly intense because she never expected to lose both parents in such a short period of time. She was somewhat prepared for her mother’s death. She died of heart failure in early June. My friend was totally unprepared for her father’s death. At seventy-nine years of age, he had no real health issues. He still fished and played golf. My friend thought he would be with her for many years. On the 21st of July, he was hospitalized due to a persistent debilitating fatigue. A week later his heart stopped. My friend believes he died because he didn’t want to live without his beloved wife. In a real sense, he died in order to be with her.

Is theirs a tragic story? Or is it a story of a romance that was so strong even death could not destroy it? Perhaps it contains elements of both. More tragic is the story of a mate who dies because of the demands of caring for their dying spouse. The other edge of the two-edged sword known as a “good marriage” reveals itself when one of the spouses gets sick or is disabled, forcing the healthy spouse into the role of caregiver. The relationship that was once a source of sustenance and support now becomes the major stressor in the life of the healthy spouse.

When this happens, it can feel like the very ground on which we are standing has suddenly become unstable. The spouse who was once a Celebrant, a resilient optimist, becomes a despairing victim, a whining and pessimistic Castaway. Her Warrior spouse whose adversaries once took the form of scaling mountains and skiing glaciers now has to do battle with his mate’s bodily fluids and endless complaints. It’s a battle he knows he can’t win, and yet it’s one of the toughest he has ever fought. He finds himself caught in a relentless emotional cycle as he begins to resent the mate he once adored, and then feels gulty about his resentment. He stops exercising. He stops eating properly. He sleeps poorly. He becomes depressed. Involutional melancholy takes hold, making it even more difficult for him to function as the caregiver. Finally, his immune system is so compromised that he catches the pneumonia that she has been fighting. The patient and the caregiver die within days of one another. Though she didn’t mean to, she has taken him to the grave with her.

Their story is a tragedy; he died to be with her, but not because of his own volition. He was trapped by her endless demands, lack of another caregiver who could have given him respite and encouraged him to take care of himself, and by the falling away of a sense of community that once provided a physical and emotional safety net for those members who were facing major life challenges. In the world in which we live, the tragedy of one spouse dying to be with the other is bound to proliferate. Hundreds or even thousands of miles separate family members, denying older couples that source of support. Notions of marriage such as “You and me against the world, Baby,” and “Nobody really loves us like we love each other,” make the unit stronger during times of health, but isolate the caregiver during times of illness. The exorbinant price of long term care and short term at-home-care magnify the problem, and make it more likely that the once healthy spouse will follow his or her mate to the grave.

“She followed him to the grave.” “He died of a broken heart.” These statements threaten to render meaningless the marriage vow, “Until death us do part.”

Selected Works

Psychology/Aging and Dying
In youth we are invincible. The world is forever: we are forever. But, sentient creatures that we are, time inevitably plays its part. Aging and illness shadow those early sensibilities until one day we feel the lurking presence of death itself. Fearful of our own dark thoughts, too often we keep such anxieties to ourselves. To deny our own mortality is a parlor game of sorts, played within our own heads and frequently played alone. Pamela Cuming will have none of it. In her latest book, The Hourglass, she throws back the parlor curtains and lets the light stream in. This is a powerful, objective, unflinching, and yet profoundly empathic work that explores the rewards of honest caring⎯the privilege and the pain⎯not only for one’s friends and family but also for one’s self. Drawing upon an uncanny intuitive understanding of human foible plus a broad knowledge of character development, honed from decades of consulting in the business world, this is a book filled with personal stories both engaging and instructive. In short, The Hourglass is a must read for all those who seek to live life to the full, from start to finish. ________________ Peter C. Whybrow MD, Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Beavior at UCLA and award-winning author of The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived.
Fiction: Publication Date Nov 14, 2014
Set in New York City and Los Angeles between August 1999 and November 2001, The Stranger Box is the story of a mother and a daughter caught like two white dwarf stars in separate orbits, destined to collide. Though she does everything in her considerable power to insure the child never finds out who she is, the vain and self-obsessed Katherine Blair is unable to change the course of her destiny or evade Eden, the resourceful daughter whose pursuit is fueled by the desire for revenge and the determination to steal the family that has been denied her.
Memoir
Widow’s Walk is a bold, brave, and candid admission of bereavement, weakness, and, ultimately, strength.
Nonfiction
A strategic guide to organizational and personal effectiveness
Turf is a direct, and sometimes disturbing book about the use and abuse of power in organizations.

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