Norma Akamatsu: Husband’s illness sparks a ‘living eulogy’
NORTHAMPTON — In 1997 my husband, Ron, was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, multiple myeloma. He did well enough for over a year with a mix of chemotherapy and high-dose steroids. But in August 1998, his health began to deteriorate.
In December we decided to convene a “healing circle” when his Florida-based brother, Ken would visit. But, just at this time, Ron’s oncologist informed us that Ron had entered the phase of palliative care, and no further treatment was possible.
Surely one of the hardest things we ever did was telling our 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, that her father was going to die. We made use of reassurances offered children of divorcing parents: our undying love, all the things that would not change — we would stay in our house, she would finish sixth grade at her school. Ron’s calm and grounded demeanor was probably what helped her most.
We went forward with a gathering. Conscious of the limited prognosis, I hesitated to call it a “healing” circle. My daughter suggested instead we call it a “Circle of Spirit and Light.”
Some 50 people arrived at the Meeting House of the Lathrop Community where my 82-year-old mother lived. I began with a welcome and immediately started to cry. We invited others not to avoid tears.
“There is naturally sadness in this experience with cancer,” I told our friends. “We know it is another aspect of the love we share and the fullness of life and is part of our healing.” I acknowledged that the current medical picture was very difficult.
My husband was a thoughtful spiritual seeker. In fashioning this meeting, I considered the various practices and traditions we had studied. I worried out loud that this hurriedly invented ritual might turn out like a “New Age Ed Sullivan Show.” It was.
There was a Native American invocation, qi gong, Hindu chanting, silent meditation led by various friends. But an atmosphere both solemn and warm was generated. The centerpiece was “Words of Light and Love.”
I invited the group to recall an experience with Ron, or something about him, that might support him in the work ahead. Virtually everyone had something to say: my mother, his brother, our daughter, many colleagues, friends including his ex-wife and her husband.
They told stories about Ron that were very meaningful, funny, about the ways he had been there for them, guided them, about his curiosity, groundedness, ethics. His best friend from the third grade, now a New York estates and trusts attorney, tried to speak but burst into loud and uncontrollable sobs. Recovering, he went on to recall amusing and important moments in their life as kids, teens and college buddies.
After the guests finished, my husband had the opportunity to make some remarks. He was intent on expressing gratitude to his medical team, naming not only his doctors, but also each and every nurse in the chemotherapy suite at Baystate Medical Center. He thanked his acupuncturists as well, his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts for their very generous support, his friends for the strength of their bonds. He had special words of appreciation for his parents, his brother, my mother, Sarah and me.
In concluding, my mother offered up a Christian prayer. We then sang rounds of “Moses’ Prayer for His Sister Miriam,” honoring Ron’s Jewish heritage. His brother concluded by speaking the prayer in Hebrew: “Ayl na r’fa na la. Ayl na r’fa na la. Ayl na r’fa na la. Refooah Shayma” and then in English: “God, please heal her. God, please heal her. God, please heal her, a complete, whole healing.”
A friend declared our gathering a “living eulogy,” thunderstruck by the wonderful possibility of sharing memories, stories and appreciations with a loved one before they are gone.
I realized it is a “fortunate” opportunity when we can anticipate an impending death. I noted that everyone was moved and seemed uplifted by the palpable love that had infused our circle. My husband, with characteristic understatement agreed: “Best day I’ve had in a long time.”
Ron died five weeks later in January 1999.
Looking back, I believe our circle provided a deep sense of completion. My husband felt peace after acknowledging those whose help had meant so much to him. Many of his friends and colleagues thanked us for “letting them in” at this tender moment in our lives and giving them the opportunity to say a goodbye that let Ron know how he had enriched their lives.
My daughter recalls this event as a mix of sadness and pride in learning how others thought of and appreciated her father. As a psychotherapist, and more importantly as a wife, I felt a sense of completion, too.
I had given my husband what was most important to him — a final opportunity to connect with those he loved and those who loved him, a “complete, whole healing.”
Norma Akamatsu is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist specializing in family therapy who practices in Northampton.