A Young Widower’s Marathon, Part 1: Cancer and its Aftermath

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The night of April 21, 2016, I opened my email and saw the following subject: “My dentist, Melanie, gave me your name as a fellow griever…” I thought back to my last cleaning and kind dentist who always remembered and asked about my journey. As I clicked on Andy Guice’s name and began to read his message, unveiling the heartbreak of cancer and young widowhood, I most recognized the plea to not feel alone. I stayed up late that night, meditating on his words and what I could offer in return. I was 23 when my husband was killed on the road; he was 31 when his wife died in the hospital after her third round of chemotherapy. We discovered, over the course of several more emails and then social interactions, that our journeys had much in common – especially the leveling of our address books. Perhaps that’s why both of us, being eight and two and a half years out respectively, continue to search for young people changed by traumatic loss and willing to share and listen about it. (Andy and I are now part of a national movement of millennials called The Dinner Party, where people in their 20s and 30s share a potluck meal and discuss their losses, anxieties, hopes, etc.)

At the time he contacted me, Andy was participating in an intensive therapy program that met every weekday morning for six months. He took an extended leave of absence from his job as a software engineer to do this, knowing that he could not move forward in his grief and anger without help. While his wife Kristin’s death was the paramount reason he enrolled, he also recognized the need to process effects from a very unstable childhood as well. A childhood that suffered abuse and neglect, producing low self-esteem and deep cynicism about the world. He described therapy to me as retraining his brain to see himself and his circumstances in a more truthful way. Born in Los Gatos, California as a twin, Andy has been a Minnesotan since five years old. He met his wife on a night his friend forced him out of the house to go bowling; she didn’t notice him that night, or the next five. Eventually, they came together and shared a prodigious romance and life he never thought possible. This interview is presented in two parts: the first on his wife’s illness and pain of young widowhood, and the second on the healing process. 

JARVIE: How do you describe the journey of her cancer, both literally and emotionally?

GUICE: I first discovered Kristin had cancer via a voicemail message. I didn’t hear my phone ring, and when I checked the voicemail, it was a message from Kristin telling me she had a cancerous tumor in one of her ovaries. The previous day, I had successfully executed an elaborate proposal for her at the Strip Club (Steakhouse) in St. Paul. I went from the highest high I’ve ever felt, to feeling totally hollow and lost inside.

The first battle was so incredibly tough and I had no idea what I was in for. Our love life diminished, our date nights became fewer and farther between, and I became more and more emotionally distant in order to just try and survive the unknown. I watched the love of my life become weaker and weaker; all I could do was try to react appropriately, ask questions, and show up. We eventually won round one, and it felt incredible. We got married soon after on July 17th, 2010.

Round two came less than a year later. We missed the thin window to try and have kids because of the scarring that came with round one. Kristin once again went through chemo and after months of weakness, fear and despair, we made it through again. It was only slightly easier, and the next few years were absolutely the best years of my life. I had my beautiful wife back, she was cancer free, and we could finally live the lives we wanted!

We went on a Caribbean cruise, got healthier and started running 5Ks together, traveled to various places, started up an adult mini golf league, and ultimately, were happy again. It was fantastic. Kristin epitomized everything I wanted in a wife, and thinking of life without her was unfathomable. We beat two cancers together, and we were finally in the clear…

A few years later, we played Whirlyball with some friends and Kristin had a residual pain in her shoulder. I forced her to see a doctor, in which we discovered that yet a third cancer round was upon us. I absolutely lost it. I screamed in agony, I ran into my bedroom, slammed the door and started punching the wall over and over again until my hands bled. It felt like it was the beginning of the end, and little did I know, it actually was true this time.

We treated this cancer the same as the others, but it certainly wasn’t the same this time. This cancer manifested in her shoulder area. Her neck was swollen to two times the normal size. She couldn’t sleep, she could barely eat, she was constantly uncomfortable, and it wasn’t getting better with chemo. I constantly cycled out Friends DVDs and massaged her legs to try and keep her comfortable, but it never felt like enough. My wife was dying on me before my eyes. I cried constantly, but I never let her see or hear me do it.

Roughly five months into the third cancer battle, Kristin’s condition declined swiftly and I was forced to call 911 out of fear. Two days into her hospitalization, I was told that Kristin will die, and I have to choose when it happens – either immediately, or to try and prolong her life as long as a day or so. At that point, she could no longer talk and our communication was reduced to hand squeezes – one for yes, two for no.

I chose to prolong her life, call as many people as I could possibly muster to call (to come say goodbye), and find a way to survive the inevitable worst day of my life. I didn’t want to live anymore. What was the point? It felt absolutely pointless to go on.

Before I lost her, I made her a promise: to run a marathon in her honor. (I completed that on October 4th, 2015.) A short while later,  I walked out of the room to cry and collect myself; during that moment, she passed. I didn’t get to say goodbye, and it was single-handedly the most painful time of my life.

I still continue to struggle daily whenever I have to recall the day I lost her, and I think I always will.

JARVIE: What coping mechanisms did you find most helpful after her death?

GUICE: When I needed to cry, I cried. When I was scared to be alone, I found a way to reach out to people and have them come over, or talk on the phone; sometimes I sought out random discussions with strangers on Reddit. I took solace in whatever outlets felt okay to leverage at the time.

Exercise is huge, but incredibly hard to do some days. I just tried to do it whenever I could. Promising a marathon to her and committing to my promise was possibly one of the best things I could have done to survive the grief. It was incredibly therapeutic.

I wish I would have gone to support groups. I hated the ones I went to because they had HUGE religious ties and I’m not religious. I refuse to believe that God’s plan is for my amazing wife to die unnecessarily and for my weird self to live on without her. That’s a horrible plan and in my opinion, not comforting in the least to hear from some random stranger.

JARVIE: What have the hardest days looked like?

GUICE: I have been extremely close to suicide on three occasions. The hardest day was after I broke things off with my then-girlfriend and committed to full-time therapy to work through my demons. It really hurt my morale and I simply shut down. I went home and felt so angry, lost, and hopeless. I was fuming from everything up-to-and-including the ride home and decided I was just done. I parked my car and closed the garage door, but didn’t turn off the car. I spent about 5 minutes sulking in this and texting my mom saying “I’m sorry,” but then couldn’t send it. I thought about the unconditional love I get from my mom and how it would tear her apart, so I opened the garage door and cried.

I ended up going to therapy the next day with intent to quit the program, but I couldn’t hold myself together and was deemed unstable to drive, which forced me to talk out my emotions and eventually put me into a better emotional state.

I still think of Kristin on a daily basis. Some days it impacts me greatly, some days I’m able to brush it off. It really just depends.

Keeping busy, and being with people are also things that have helped me cope. Being able to accept that I’m going to have rough days has also been huge. It is one thing to know I’ll have them, and another thing to shame myself for having them.

 

Michelle Jarvie

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Michelle Jarvie is an author, educator, and mentor from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She began her career in mediation and business analysis after obtaining a master’s in public policy. Within two years of graduation, she married and lost her husband, James, to a motor vehicle crash. While searching for hope and coping mechanisms, Michelle quit her job, learned how to remodel a house, and sought trauma and grief counseling. Sixteen months after her loss, she started volunteering to read with two fifth grade girls who desperately needed a dependable, caring adult in their lives. As a result of this opportunity, Michelle decided to pursue a teaching license in English education. Since graduation in 2011, she has been teaching creative writing, writers’ workshop, and global literature courses at the high school level. She also regularly speaks to large and small groups of teenagers about grief, depression, and moving forward (not “moving on”). She loves to bring in Star Trek stories and quotes about grief to supplement her own. Michelle remarried in June 2013 and, with her new husband Sean, is expecting her first child in February 2015. They love to travel leisurely, stop for great food, and philosophize about changing the world.

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