Sunday, July 10, 2011

How Did He Die?

I’m at the bank, not my usual branch.
Comments are made about how tall my youngest is.
“He’s only 9?”
I nod.
What I want to do is roll my eyes, and hand her a card that says:

“Thank you for noticing that my child is tall. Hopefully he will be a tall man some day. I have trained him to smile and say “Thank you,” even though he has nothing to do with how tall he is or how tall he will be. Now kindly stop ogling and either lets finish our business or be on your way.”

That’s what the card would say.

But I haven’t printed it up yet so instead I say:

“Yes, he is tall. My husband was 6’6.”

I use past tense easily now, forgetting how ominous it sounds. When their eyes go wide, I assume, for an instant that it’s in response to my husband’s height. Silly me.

The conversational tone changes from light to tragic. Their realization that in front of them is a woman whose life truly is tragic. “Did you say your husband ‘was’?”

Here we go.

“Yes. I did. My husband died.” And depending on the situation I sometimes add ‘recently.’

And then it comes, the stupidest question ever…

“How did he die?”
Or if they have a modicum of politeness, it’s:
“Do you mind me asking how he died?”

Now here is my quandary.

I do mind. Now I do.

When he first died, I would recount the story in detail. Somehow telling it over and over again and getting the same reactions over and over again put more and more earth beneath my feet, a place where I could say “this is where I stand now, without a husband.”

Then right around the second year, I noticed that telling my story began to feel old. I felt like my piece of earth was fairly solid. I had tamped it down and built it up. It was called “my new life: the expected bad, ugly and the surprisingly good.”

As I stepped into my third year, (OMG my third year….. I remember in the beginning not being able to imagine what it would be like to live that long without him!) Wow.

As I stepped into my third year, I find the question intrusive. And voyeuristic and well, like I’m adding to their gossip mill.

Isn’t it enough that my husband died? If I tell them he died of cancer, unless they have experienced loosing someone to cancer, they will have a way-not-accurate-image of his last moments on this earth that will probably include him looking deeply into my eyes and him saying a few final words before his last breath is taken. Or something that is so, so far from the truth!

I have to admit. It’s the kind of question I would have asked before I was on this side of death. It’s the kind of thing I would have listened intently too, shaken my head. Then later, maybe months later, I would have shared with an authoritative tone in my voice “I met this woman who lost her husband to cancer and she said…….”

That would have been me. Missing the whole point. Because it’s not how he died that matters. It’s the fact that he’s dead that matters.

And this is what I want to tell someone when they ask.

“Its not about what killed him. What makes it so difficult is that he’s dead.”

So I resolve to use that line. I resolve to not tell anyone how he died.
From here on out, when someone asks me “how” I will reply:

“It’s not what killed him that matters, it’s the fact that he is dead that is so difficult.”

And in that resolution, I leave the house the next day.
And I find myself in a random conversation with a random person in line at the grocery store.

Out slips “He was … “

“Oh!” she says “Is your husband dead? “

“Yes.” I reply

“Was he shot?”

I give up.


  1. Kim,I also lost my husband to cancer and what sometimes gets me is that even widows who lost their husband from some tragic accident, sometimes do not get that the end is not like you see in the movies. You do not get "those" kind of goodbyes. But in the end it does not matter as you say how, but that they are gone.

  2. Kim,
    I love your honest, from the gut and to-the-point writing style. As I read today's post, I nodded in agreement and then burst out laughing at the end. Not that it was "funny" when in an instant you realize the ignorant racism and bigotry in her reply. But it is just too much what some people will say, assume, blurt out without a thought. I laughed a "holy shit, she said what laugh" as I have so many times myself when someone replies without a clue as to what you/we have been through. Deep sigh...I give up sometimes too but somehow we do go on. I cannot wait to meet you at Camp Widow!!

  3. Kim -
    is it awful that the last line made me laugh.
    It is your fierce determination that resonates with me. Thank you for tell ing this story.
    My husband died of cancer too. A brain tumour. That brings on a slew of "mental stability" questions that not only do I find extremely intrusive but offensive. My husband had a brilliant math mind and was very successful in his work. It is the salacious details that offend me in those questions: "Did he suffer?" , "Did he know who you were?", "Could he speak in the end, did he lose his sight, did he have convulsions, confusion, did he act out violently, was he able to think?!"

    Now my answer is the truth "he died surrounded by the family he loved, his last words were loving and he lived longer than he was told he would".

    the rest is none of their business. Like you I promised to honour my husbands dying by not sharing the details of it. What matters is that he died. I - we, have lost our spouses, our loves, the people we thought we would live our our lives with.

    The best statement i got when someone found out was "I am so sorry you lost your husband, I am sure it has been a long and painful journey for you and your family."
    No questions - just acknowledgment of the truth.

    Thank you Kim for being out there, so I have a better idea of the road ahead.

  4. Here is a strategy...."How did he die?" (or plug in the invasive question of your choice). Response..."I'd rather not revisit it, it was a difficult time. But thanks for your concern."

  5. Kim, thank you for your post. I need to come here more often to read.

    I wasn't expecting to laugh at the end, but thank you -- I did! (What on earth was she thinking, blurting that out?!)

    My husband also died of cancer (four years ago this coming Saturday). Actually, he died of lung cancer. You can imagine the questions that come with that.

    I hadn't been asked the "how did your husband die?" question in a while, but I was recently. And it was by someone I was just getting to know. First, it caught me off guard. And then I felt a bit invaded. I felt like I wanted to choose who I told and when I talked about it.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  6. I get that those of you who've lost a spouse share a unique and painful bond. Who on earth would ask to lose the person who means the most to them? But not all of us who ask "how it happened?" are stupid. Some of us truly care.

  7. Lori from San DiegoJuly 15, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    Another hit out of the ballpark, Kim. Thanks so much.