What a Widow Needs to Know by Lisa Sparrell

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selection of medical forms and pamphlets in a file holder

At his final oncologist visit, my husband mixed up his words. Not just mixed them up but used entirely out-of-context words. The doctor showed us the newest scans, with color spreading across the screen. Danny responded with things like, “Does this mean I’m strawberry?” and “We can Wednesday home.” The doctor handed me brochures from two different local hospice providers and said, “Pick one. Call tonight. He needs this to start tomorrow.”

The brochures showed calm, concerned faces. Professionals in lab coats. Reclining elderly people with tired, peaceful smiles. There were checklists and perforated pages with forms labeled “Power of Attorney” and “Advance Directive.”

The brochures implied gentleness, a slow drift. But Danny’s cancer was a tidal wave, and it ended violently, leaving behind only debris and destruction.

My own brochure—my own advice to the next cancer widow–would include pictures of scans and of ported chests. It would show faces twisted in violent defiance and family members with rubber gloves and buckets. It would show ugly crying.

Appearing next to these photos, the following checklist:

  • You should have already picked a funeral home before you knew he was dying.
  • You will need at least five original death certificates from the mortuary. There is a charge for each original. Get more than you think you’ll need. Proof is everything.
  • Funerals are expensive. Burials are expensive. Cremations are expensive. You should have saved for this.
  • You will need to know what he wanted done with his body. When would you have asked him this – over dinner one night? There’s no right time. But you should have.
  • His body will not look like it did just yesterday. Not in color or in shape.
  • In some states, his credit card debt dies with him. You will send the death certificate.
  • You and your offspring may qualify for Social Security survivor benefits. You’ll need the death certificate, your marriage certificate, her birth certificate, your ID. You’ll need to go to the federal building and wait until they call your name and tell you that you came to the wrong department. You will cry until they call a supervisor and your application is approved. You won’t mean to cry in public like this, but words are hard work, and this is where they told you to come, and you are so tired.
  • If your name isn’t on the utility bills, you will have to close the account (death certificate again) and open a new one under your name. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been paying them.
  • Practice saying, “He died.” You will have to say it on the phone over and over again. See if you can form the words without feeling them in your mouth. It will help.
  • You will have to figure out how the TV connects to the cable connects to the stereo connects to the Wii before your daughter cries and runs to her room because you’re not the right parent.
  • You will go through his wallet and feel like you’re spying.
  • You will keep your daughter on a normal schedule—breakfast, school, dinner, Girl Scouts, reading, counseling, rest. You will both keep moving.
  • You will try to fix the toilet handle three times before succeeding.
  • You will need to develop a list of short answers to “what was it?” and “did you expect it? and “how are you?”
  • If you’re renting, you will have to sign a new lease. If you own, you will have to notify your mortgage company. Death certificates. Again.
  • You will have to explain to family why you’re not moving out of your home.
  • You will hear words like “strong,” and “brave,” and “resilient,” but you won’t feel any of it.

It might not be the glossy, hopeful brochure that people are used to, but it will give people with dying spouses what I didn’t have – a life raft, a pineapple, a Tuesday to cling to when I became a widow.

Meet the Contributor

Lisa Sparrell lives with her teen daughter in Honolulu, Hawaii. She’s worked in poetry and plays in the distant past and is currently writing a memoir about physical responses to grief.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Robert Couse-Baker

  6 comments for “What a Widow Needs to Know by Lisa Sparrell

  1. I always said after going thru what I did when our parents died in same yr…” I’m going to write a how to manual..”. Always have multiple cert copies of your self and partners documents. Birth certificate. Marriage cert. I bought 12 death cert. I used all but 1. And they must be certified. Which costs money.

  2. Dad was surprised to find that each death certificate cost 20 bucks, and since he needs about 50. . . The death care industry is a complete rip off. Thank you for baring your soul and sharing, because it’s so important to make this shit known. Love you.

  3. Thank you, Lisa. The practical side of death is a hammer that many don’t see coming. Your notes are a true guide – especially about the death certificates. The thing I most remember about my mother’s death was being in a foreign place and having to drive out in the middle of nowhere to meet a family-owned mortuary who did cremations. It felt like an audition. This was East Texas and creamation was not the accepted form of burial. I felt more judgement than compassion. “You don’t want an urn? Any urn? Then how will you transport your mother’s remains?” (By halving them and sending one box to my sister in California and one box to me in Hawai’i.). Trying not to spend money on ashes was met with downcast looks and a cool demeanour as if I was some heathen monster, some sort of evil they couldn’t get rid of fast enough. I should be ashamed, that was obvious. And here I’m running around, emotionally distraught, and trying to sort out the business end of death while my sister is sitting in the ICU with my dying mother. Mom had a living will but she was in a Baptist Hospital in East Texas. It took me 9 days to get her off of life support even though she had a living will and I had power of attorney. I kept having to debate the issue with their lawyer and counsellor while my mother’s eyes pleaded with me, grabbing at her ventilator tube with her eyes begging me to enforce her wishes. So my mother is dying and I’m evil and cheap and a potential murderer, all from those ‘here to help’. The business of death. I was not ready for it either, but ready or not…

  4. A practical and poignant list. Our system makes it hard to be the one left behind. Thank you for finding the fortitude to share it.

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