During 2020 the experience of lockdown has impacted all we do, and in particular caring for loved ones who are terminally ill, and grieving those who have passed away.
My wife Evelyn had been struggling with a recurrence of breast cancer for over four years when she was eventually told in February that her condition was terminal, with just months to live. The cancer had spread to her spine and she quickly deteriorated. We tried to care for her at home, but it became increasingly difficult, so she went into the local hospice. Because of visiting restrictions, I was allowed to go and stay with her. After a week she had improved sufficiently to be transferred to a local Care Home. Again, I decided to go with her – Evelyn in nursing care and myself as a resident – otherwise I would not have been able to see her.
The transition to a Care Home was a huge shock to the system. It was hot, noisy and full of hustle and bustle. It took us time to adjust, but gradually we got into a routine and had six good weeks together. Evelyn’s condition was deteriorating daily, and it was painful to watch. She needed a hoist to get her out of bed, and was slowly losing control of her bodily functions, a huge loss of dignity. We were aware of the risk of coronavirus in such a setting, but it was a risk we had to take. However, we both caught the virus. Surprisingly Evelyn recovered fairly quickly, but my condition worsened and I ended up in Intensive Care.
As I fought for my life, I thought I would never see her again. Intensive Care was a lonely and frightening place. No visitors allowed; you were on your own. Across the room from me two other patients were on ventilators. I cried to God, ‘Lord, don’t let me have to go on a ventilator.’ A stream of prayer was going up for us, and with this and the medical care, I began to recover and after two weeks was allowed to return home, but not to the Care Home.
I was physically very weak but what hurt the most was that I could no longer be with Evelyn. We had an occasional phone call, which was far from satisfactory, and soon she began to be confused. One afternoon the Home called me because Evelyn was disturbed and wanted to come home. They asked me to reassure her that she was in the right place. Patiently, with tears rolling down my cheeks, I explained to her why we had taken the decision for her to be in care, and she calmed and seemed to understand. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I began to feel guilty that I was at home and recovering whist Evelyn was still in the care Home and struggling by herself. I could be with our family, and see the grandchildren, but she was denied that pleasure. I felt I had let her down, that I had failed, since my aim had been to be with her to the end. Fortunately, God spoke a word to me: ‘She was mine long before she was yours and I won’t abandon her now’, he said. That lifted my despair, and I began to entrust her to the care of her heavenly Father.
After a month of separation, we were allowed into the care home to see her as she neared the end. It was a healing time, even if a painful one. I was able to sit with her, hold her hand, feed her sips of water, give her a little food to eat, and pray with her. Slowly she slipped away. Her lasts words were, ‘Thank you Jesus, you led me all the way.’ We held a Thanksgiving for her life over Zoom which was strange but enabled people from all over the world to take part and mourn her passing. Then we had a service at the graveside, when about 70 attended, socially distanced. It was a moving tribute to her life lived for Christ from being a young girl.
Grieving has not been easy during lockdown. I have missed seeing friends, being hugged, having the chance to share memories of Evelyn. Just when you most need your friends, they are not able to visit you. I have had to learn how to cook for myself and manage the house and garden. I have found eating alone especially difficult as I adjust to being single.
Looking back, although it was a traumatic time, I can see how much God helped us. Our story is a story of love, the love we had for each other after 46 years of marriage. But also, the story of God’s love, from which nothing can separate us. Time and again he comforted me through Scripture, worship songs, acts of kindness and amazing provision. It is a story of the love of friends, those who prayed in tears, sent cards and flowers, wrote letters of encouragement, shared our journey. It is also a story of the love of strangers, of those health service professionals who cared for us, showed us kindness, went beyond the call of duty.
Perhaps this is the great gift to the world from the pandemic – the reminder that love is the most important thing of all.