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For the love of Spiderman (and the husbands who read his comics)

They met in Khalid’s comic book store. 

Erin couldn’t stop coming in to pick up Dave’s monthly shipment of Spiderman “Books” which had been an important part of his life since his early adolescence. 

His untimely death was not enough reason to stop collecting, and Khalid was an important friend who’d supported Erin through the final days of Dave’s illness. 

The store being the size of a walk-in closet, Erin overheard a conversation Khalid was having with a distraught woman at the cash. She, too, was buying a package of Spiderman comics—for her husband undergoing palliative chemotherapy, easing symptoms of his rare and terminal cancer. The comics were his respite from grim reality, and something fun and undemanding he could read while his wife Marisol spent hours at his bedside. 

Erin approached Marisol. “I couldn’t help but hear what you were telling Khalid. My fiancé died. If you ever want to talk, or just vent to someone who’s been there, here’s my contact info. I’d be happy to get together and chat.”

Erin and Dave dated a long time ago, broke up and got back together before they decided to commit for life. They were part of a group that did a live Rocky Horror performance every Halloween. When they fell in love, Erin found it ironic that she, a CCU nurse, would fall for a man who had congenital heart disease and a corrected valve. Dave was energized by childhood challenges. He was a dedicated athlete who relished being strong and funny and resilient. Spiderman was his childhood role model, someone who lived with sorrow, and strived to do good in a world that often misunderstood him. Physically, he resembled a warmly smiling, slightly balding super hero.

Marisol and Erin started meeting up at the iconic Nick’s Diner for their chats. One of the bonds the women shared was their annoyance at how people, friends and acquaintances persisted in trying to find a reason why both men got sick. “Did he smoke” they would ask, when his childhood valve could not keep up with his adult heart. “Did he eat a lot of junk food?”

For Marisol, people’s questions were more focussed on his mental attitude. So many people asked If her husband had repressed his emotions, swallowed his anger, didn’t meditate and that this somehow precipitated the growth of his rare and deadly cancer.

This phenomenon drives me crazy. It’s a natural human trait to believe there’s a reason bad things happen to other people and that there is also a reason that they won’t happen to oneself.  Some people seem to enjoy anatomizing the patient’s health; mental, physical, and spiritual, to reassure themselves that they are safe. This is fine, as long as they keep it to themselves. But when they pepper the patients, and their families with rude and intrusive questions that imply some kind of failure on the sick person’s part, I tend to unleash the rough side of my tongue on the unsuspecting idiot. 

Marisol also found the unrelenting positivity of her work colleagues grating. Long after she told them her husband was palliative, they’d ask if she’d found a new protocol or treatment to cure him. “I hope he gets well soon!” they’d say. This demand for people to keep searching for some magical cure can be very harmful to the people who are caring for the dying.

So what should people do instead? There is a basic principle of bereavement care I call the concentric circles of mourning. The dying person is the center of the circle, the immediate family the next ring, close friends the next and outwards to the larger circles of friends, acquaintances and community. The paradigm is to support inwards, sending questions/complaints outwards. Close family can inform those in the outer rings about what is needed and wanted by the dying person, their partner and children. The outer circle is there to execute those needs and desires. 

Dave went through a series of grueling operations to replace his mechanical valve. With complication after complication, it was only through the heroic determination of his surgeon and three teams who laboured for hours that he even got off the table alive. After a long stay in the CCU, infections, revisions and setbacks, he was finally well enough to go home—where his comic collection was waiting to greet him. He started doing better. Wedding conversations were on the table. Then one morning, Erin woke up and found him dead in the bed beside her. 

No one had to imply that she should have been able to save David’s life. She lacerated her own heart with would-haves and should-haves. Going back to work in her CCU was an intensely courageous act. 

With the help of her friends and family, of Marisol and my daughter Eri, her best friend since childhood, she has come back to herself.  She’s able to smile and laugh, to help and to heal, to be the loving person she’s been since she was a little girl. These past two years have changed her as a person and as a nurse. It has made her deeper, even more compassionate and stronger. I look forward to her next chapter. 

Being allowed into the circle of mourning grants you the knowledge and power to heal, and as Spider Man fans know, “With great power comes great responsibility!”