Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Actress Valerie Harper, perhaps most famous for her sidekick role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later her own spinoff about her character, “Rhoda,” has been engaged in a years-long battle with brain cancer, and this week her husband, Tony Cacciotti, announced that doctors have recommended hospice care, which is offered at end of life.
Cacciotti wrote on Facebook that he could not agree because, he implied, that was the loving choice.
“I have been told by doctors to put Val in Hospice care and I can’t [because of our 40 years of shared commitment to each other] and I won’t because of the amazing good deeds she has graced us with while she’s been here on earth,” he wrote.
But he also hinted at his own struggles in saying goodbye. “For those of you who have been in this position, you will totally understand that ‘it’s hard letting go,’ ” he went on. “So as long as I’m able and capable, I’ll be where I belong right beside her.”
Very few of us will get through life without having to face a loved one’s death. And chances are good someone else in our lives will have an opinion on how we handed the situation: Were we too emotional? Not emotional enough? Did we do “all we could”? Even those who get by without others’ judgment can feel it from themselves. How many times have we heard someone say, after the fact, that they handled death “wrong”? As in, “I should have been there more” or “I should have said/done/been this”?
Keeping in mind that none of us can truly know what’s going on in the household or marriage of another, those with a clear view of Cacciotti’s situation may suggest that by denying his wife hospice – which often involves nursing care and assistance in relieving pain – however unintentionally, he may not be doing the the most loving thing.
Hospice, after all, isn’t about sending someone away to die alone, the colder option for the unattached, as he seems to be saying (for one thing, home hospice exists). The spouse, partner, family members do not “go away” in hospice.
It is not abandonment. Far from it. Rather it’s an acknowledgment, determined by a doctor, that the end is near and that treatments to forestall it will not work or will impair the quality of the patient’s remaining days. It is about providing dying people – usually those who a doctor thinks will live less than six months – comfort and services to make the transition to death easier and less painful. It’s not some kind of “sentence”: If the prognosis changes or if a patient changes his or her mind about hospice, generally, treatments can resume.
Depending on what hospice care is being proffered to Harper, it may involve in-home care – often a blessing for a caregiver who simply needs a little time away to tend to other life matters – and counseling for loved ones. And it may include the option or suggestion of a hospital setting.
It is possible that Cacciotti’s own admission “it’s hard letting go” indicates a somewhat clouded judgment of what’s actually best for his wife.
At the same time, while it’s easy to judge Cacciotti’s decision, it’s very easy to understand it. How we handle another’s death is about us, never more so than when it’s up to us to make a call between life or death.
Death is very personal and very powerful.
It leads us to a reflection on our own lives, our own mortality, and that can be overwhelming for many, particularly those who are caring for someone at the end. Many people don’t grieve; many people can’t stop.
But it is worth considering: Is being with a loved one – who may or may not, by then, even know your presence – worth years of your own suffering as you sort through the choices you made under the duress of looming death?
As emotionally wrenching as it is to face the end, is forgoing attentive end-of-life care really the best thing for your loved one?