Site icon Legacies From the LIVING Room: A Love-Grief Equation

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Synopsis of Journey with Nasopharyngeal Cancer


An ice helmet brought much relief

When Debbie Oliver’s husband David is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic nasopharyngeal cancer, she realizes that the life as they know it is over. Hearing the news of the terminal nature of the cancer, all five of the grown children (ages 43-21) come home to be with Debbie and David once they hear the news. David finds hope in support from his family while Debbie is terrified of his loss.

David and Debbie create several public YouTube videos related to their experience that become a teaching tool to educate medical students, health care professionals, friends and family. The five-minute videos humanize his diagnosis and allow his loved ones to come to terms with what’s happening in a real way. An Associated Press story on David and the videos leads to an appearance on CBS This Morning. The videos encourage the family to talk about things, and not to hide from the cancer, they provide social support from friends and strangers, and they facilitate conversations within classrooms and between people all over the world.

The Hope in Bucket Lists

After David finishes chemo, it’s time to attack his bucket list. They travel extensively from Europe to the Artic Circle, Canada, Las Vegas, the Caribbean, and more. David coins the acronym, HOPE—to die at Home, surrounded by Others, Pain-free, and Excited until the end. This becomes Debbie’s goal, to achieve HOPE for her husband.

The cancer reappears but David is not interested in more chemo, and he and Debbie realize that this is the real moment he’s looking death in the face. While there are still things to be grateful for (new grandchild, graduations), many difficult decisions need to be made. The cancer starts to take its toll on David’s ability to think and he is not always the best judge of things, so Debbie needs to be hyper-aware of her husband. He acknowledges that she can be more objective than him, and she becomes his caregiver.

Hope in Hospice and Death

David enrolls in hospice and the realities become unavoidable. He wants Debbie to think about her future, but she can’t. The caregiving burden grows and the kids start coming over to help. David starts saying his goodbyes. While the last days are terribly sad, they also leave Debbie with sweet moments she’ll never forget. The last 24 hours, though, are true agony. Debbie did everything she could to let him die in HOPE. She gathers his loved ones, does everything she can to keep him comfortable, and in the end says goodbye and gives him permission to let go.

Leaving Legacies

Before David died, he wrote 26 letters to friends and family to be mailed after he passed. They are each personal, and emotional. David chose to have his ashes scattered at Loch Vale Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. He had Debbie plan the trip before he passed so he could picture it happening, and know it would officially take place. Nineteen family and friends traveled to Colorado for the event—a big party honoring David’s life.

Life goes on despite David’s loss leaving a big hole in Debbie’s life. She thrives on her family time, accepts that it’s okay to be sad, and moves on in a way that doesn’t let David go, but doesn’t keep her mired only in the grief. Her family does the same: some move houses, some get new jobs, some consider what part of David’s legacy they can continue, some get married. But that doesn’t mean grief doesn’t come. Debbie learns to do things alone that she and David had always done together. Even being a “single parent” is a challenge as their kids go through tough times of their own. She joins a support group as she tries to figure out her new identity, and the whole family leans on each other as they continue to process their loss.

The more we love the more we grieve: A Love-Grief Equation

Debbie has things she needs to say to David and writes him an emotional letter outlining the things she misses and the ways she has handled and mishandled her grief. Her letter is a moving description of how she is trying to rebuild her life, following David’s advice to focus on the love to manage the grief. The story ends as Debbie builds a new house behind her old one and reflects on how she has learned to look back at the past but live in her new world today.

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