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A Widower Recounts the Loss of His Wife From Leukemia

At the age of 30, George Moore never anticipated that his nearly new marriage to Julia, 28, would end with her abrupt death from leukemia.

Julia had never had any health problems. In fact, she had enjoyed a healthy pregnancy that resulted in the birth of the couple's son, Jonathan, on Nov. 4, 2000.

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But in May 2001, Julia complained that she felt worn out. The couple believed that she was exhausted from the demands of a new baby and being out of shape.

Not long afterward, however, Julia's body broke out in red dots. Doctors told her she had acute lymphatic leukemia - a very aggressive form of the cancer - and they immediately began chemotherapy.

Here, George, who lives in Newark, Del., with his young son, spoke with Discovery Health Online about his and Julia's very personal journey with the disease, its affect on their life together, and its aftermath.

Q: What did you and your wife do when you first learned that Julia had leukemia?

A: It was a combination of fear and being overwhelmed that brought us to tears, and we just cried. One minute we're at the beach on vacation - we go from a normal life - to being told: "Your wife has cancer." Cancer is a big word for anybody. It's a word you associate with death. Julia and her mom were at the hospital and they called me at work and told me she had cancer. Once I saw Julia's face, it was just terrifying to think this is not something that one visit to the doctor's office would fix. We knew then that our lives would change dramatically. We were flooded with thoughts of how we would take care of our son, to how we would spend time as a couple, since Julia would be in the hospital for two months for her first round of chemotherapy. What crushed Julia was that she really couldn't handle our baby for two months straight. She was so broken - he was only 8 months. She cried a lot about that. For the first two months, we were back and forth to the hospital and our son went into a day-care center. Also, maintaining our marriage in a hospital setting, where we were disturbed every 15 minutes, was tough. We had to learn how to adjust with Julia living in a hospital bed and having her meals given to her. She adjusted phenomenally. She strengthened me.

Q: What support did you receive from family and friends?

A: We received financial and emotional support from church members and friends. They also helped cleaned the house and did the laundry. Julia's family helped take care of our son. We had well over 100 people helping us out. I don't know how anyone could go through this without a support group. It was crucial to my personal survival. I couldn't hold it together emotionally - even with my faith. We also got Social Security disability, which was a big help.

Q: How hopeful was your doctor about Julia's prognosis?

A: From the beginning, our doctor told Julia it was not a death sentence. He was optimistic the whole time. He never indicated that we couldn't beat this. That was very necessary. He encouraged us that by March of 2002 we should be working on the downhill toward complete healing. That helped me get over the death sentence. In the first few months, we believed she was going to come home and that life would return to normal as we knew it. We didn't think we'd need to make major lifestyle adjustments.

Q: When did that mindset begin to change?

A: In September 2001 - three months after Julia was diagnosed. While the chemotherapy did a good job of knocking the cancer out - and Julia had been in remission - it came back and it was more aggressive this time. At that point, the doctor suggested a bone-marrow transplant. By December - after more rounds of chemotherapy - we realized it was the only way she was going to live. We broke down and cried.

 

Q: How did life change for you and Julia at that point?

A: Julia would come home from the hospital for brief periods. We'd go on trips. Life was almost like normal, except she didn't have hair. We went out to restaurants. It was then, though, that Julia decided that we had to face some serious questions. We discussed my role as the primary caretaker of our son. She started to emotionally release from our son, and I began to learn how to provide the daily care for my son. Through all of this, Julia was optimistic. It was her view that it's not worth moping about something you can't control. At this point, neither of us had a clue about what would happen. Through January there was no bone-marrow donor. Her brother and sister were not a match, but soon afterward they found a close enough match. They did the transplant and it took well. The doctors and nurses all encouraged us a lot. Toward the end of March, we got excited and said: "Julia's going to overcome this!" We planned our vacation again - for June and Christmas, but then, two weeks later, it was clear that the leukemia wouldn't rest. It came back in the middle of the bone marrow taking. The doctor said: "I'm going to be honest. We've fought hard. Your leukemia is too aggressive. You're probably going to die from this." At that point, we asked what other options we had. The doctor said we could either endure more chemotherapy, or let Julia go home and pass away. Those were the most final words I have ever heard in my life.

Q: As a couple, how did you cope with this realization?

A: We cried, and after some back-and-forth discussion, we decided to fight to the very end, but we decided to do so from home. By this point, Julia had lost 40 to 50 pounds. She could barely walk. Traveling back and forth from the hospital was too much for her. In June of 2002, she came home from the hospital. She wanted to be home, and I wanted her to die at home. At this point, we had to announce to our support group what was going on. Julia's No. 1 concern was never seeing the baby again. All throughout our ordeal - and most certainly at this point - people were the most important thing. I definitely bonded with a lot of people, and so did she.

Q: Once home, what challenges did you face as Julia's caretaker?

A: Julia was in enormous pain, which crushed me. There was nothing I could do. Her immune system was gone. And while she had digressed physically, she was mentally cognizant. On June 17, I sat down next to her bed and asked her how much longer she wanted this to go on. Because of the pain, she hadn't slept in a week. I thought I had another two weeks with her, but in fact, I didn't. Hospice came in on the 19th and gave her enough medication to help her rest comfortably. She died that evening while I was having dinner with my son. When I realized she had died, I experienced shock, disbelief and relief. I didn't expect her to go then, but I was so relieved that she was out of pain.

Q: You have strong religious beliefs. How has Julia's death affected those beliefs?

A: I'm not mad or angry with God. I just didn't agree with the decision. I don't question him - I'm not looking for an answer. I still want my wife every day. I have no new dreams yet, so it's hard to connect emotionally with God. I read the Bible and pray every day and ask God to help me. Julia, of course, had to deal with believing whether God was good or not. The question clearly was: "Why would he allow something like this to happen?" But Julia and I both agreed before she died that God is good and that he loved us, but we could not begin to figure out how he thinks or how he makes decisions. I do believe - and I know Julia would believe this, too - that she's in a better place.

Q: How have you been coping with Julia's loss in these short weeks since her death?

A: I've been reading grief books, and I'm also going to start grief counseling. Grief is a learning process. No one grieves the same way. Many of my friends expect me to be more of a "doomsdayer." While the person I was most passionate about is gone, life is not horrible. Life is quite good. It's a matter of getting some passion back. My No. 1 fear has been forgetting any memories of my wife. I'm planning to go away for a weekend to think how much my life has changed and how much I loved my wife. I'm committed to figuring out the healthiest way to remember Julia forever. Life does go on, and I can't stop life, but that doesn't mean I have to forget Julia. I'm working on photo albums and videos so I can create a living library for myself and for my son.

Q: How has your outlook on life changed as a result of your ordeal with illness and death?

A: I make the best of the day because I realize now - more fully than before - that that's all that you may get. I also used to be a procrastinator; now I move on things more quickly. I also value being close to people. Instead of having 50 associates, I prefer to have 10 really good friends. Before, I prided myself on independence, thinking I didn't need anyone - that I didn't need any help. Now I realize that I need people all of the time.

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