When a Doctor Learns His Wife Is Going to Die
In 'New York,' Peter Bach writes of their last 8 months
By Newser Editors, Newser Staff
Posted May 7, 2014 1:28 PM CDT
Updated May 11, 2014 6:55 AM CDT

(Newser) – Peter Bach writes in New York magazine about the moment he looked at his wife's X-ray results while stopped at a red light, with her sitting next to him. In that instant, "I broke two of my most important marital promises," he writes. "I started acting like my wife’s doctor, and I lied to her." He did the latter because he knew the bad news immediately—her breast cancer had spread. He knew what was in store for her, even if she wouldn't for a little while longer, until her oncologist broke the news.

Bach's essay recounts in eloquent fashion the next eight months leading up to Ruth's death—the increasingly desperate treatments, the black humor, the moment when his wife had to tell their young son that the doctors couldn't make her better, his struggles to balance his roles as husband and doctor. He concludes with the observation that Hollywood gets grief wrong. It's not, for instance, the big events like anniversaries that hit you. "It’s in the grocery aisle passing the romaine lettuce and recalling how your spouse learned to make Caesar salad, with garlic-soaked croutons, because it was the only salad you’d agree to eat. ... It’s not sobbing, collapsing, moaning grief. It’s phantom-limb pain. It aches, it throbs, there’s nothing there, and yet you never want it to go away." The full essay is well worth the read.

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May 8, 2014 5:25 PM CDT
I'm with the doc. My mother died from complications from rheumatoid arthritis from taking immunosuppressive meds at age 56. Christmas, her birthday, my parents' anniversary, my birthday. Meh. But, her favorite breakfast was those horrendous cinnamon-sugar pop-tarts. I can't even go down the "pop-tart aisle" for fear of catching a glimpse of those nasty things. Seeing hose brown shingles leave me in a weepy grief-stricken mess. Yep, pop-tarts. My nemesis. I think it is because it strikes in a public place when you aren't thinking of "oh, how I miss my mom..." Holidays, you are prepared to deal with your memories...In Kroger, not so much.
May 8, 2014 4:02 AM CDT
"It's not, for instance, the big events like anniversaries that hit you." l lost my husband to cancer just over 3 year ago and for me, those 'events' are still brutal and definitely the worst part of the grief. absolutely, there are 'moments', like the lettuce example he mentioned, but they're typically fleeting, momentary thoughts, whereas birthdays, anniversaries, etc., depress me for days before, the day of and for many days after. I'm still waiting for it to get easier. I can't even imagine how difficult it was for him, being both dr. and husband. as a doctor, you know for a fact your spouse will die. but for the rest of us I think we always believe there is reason for hope and we cling to that. a dr. has no such illusions, only that death is certain and imminent. I feel very sorry for him. may his wife rest in peace.
May 8, 2014 1:27 AM CDT
The situation illustrates why doctors for patients when life is limited are replaced with hospice doctors. Good systems tell the original doctor to remain friends and stop by in hospital situations. Doctors are trained to cure. And when they can't find life frustrating. So they need to step back and let other doctors trained in palliative care to take over. We all die. How we handle it is a mark of how well we live. So listen to a grieving friend tell stories about the departed. Encourage it.