Velta Lewis died the morning of May 15th in the arms of her husband in the home they had purchased upon retiring three years previously. Her death, nine months after the diagnosis of lung cancer, occurred shortly before the couple expected to celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary during a two-week trip to Paris. My father was devastated. Over the following weeks, I would find him sitting alone in their darkened family room – no television, no radio, no conversation to break the silence – staring with red-rimmed eyes into the past, trails of tears upon his cheeks.
If you have experienced the death of a loved one, you understand how grief can stun, even take you to your knees. In the midst of your own pain, it is easy to forget others who suffer. However, in the case of a parent whose spouse has died, it is at this time that your strength and compassion is most needed.
Members of the Greatest Generation were no strangers to death. My dad had experienced the passing of his grandmother as a young boy, and witnessed her body resting in the parlor of their house for final viewing, as was the custom in those days. He had spent almost a year in Europe during World War II, losing buddies to the ravages of battle. In the ensuing years, he and my mother buried parents, relatives, and friends, the funerals becoming more frequent as they grew older. They were religious people, neither fearing death, sure of their place in eternity.
But generally, the natural order of life is for husbands to go first, not wives. They had worked and saved over the years, expecting to enjoy 5 to 10 years of travel and seeing grandchildren before Dad’s time to go. Mother dying first was unnatural in the grand scheme of things – unlikely, but not impossible. In fact, according to the U.S. Census figures in 2012, husbands are 3.2 times more likely to die before their wives, with 36.9% of women older than 65 widowed compared to 11.5% of men over age 65 who are widowers. To my father, all of their shared preparations for their final days were suddenly pointless.