When a Spouse Is Killed

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The gross negligence lawsuit against the surgeon and nurse practitioners who are responsible for my wife’s death is now at long last over.  After years of legal contention and endless frustration, I won.  But to what end?  She cannot be restored to me.

Debbie died just as our children were starting high school in a new community.  They had to go through all their coming of age experiences without a mother’s encouragement or a mother’s prayer.  Our daughter has now graduated with top honors from her college and will soon be getting married.  Our son will graduate from his university this coming spring and will be commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the active U.S. Army, having completed four years of ROTC.  Both children have matured into good and gracious young adults.  Both live by the faith they were raised in.

I will continue on in ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.  Only I will be alone, always alone.  I have to deal with all the joys and pressures of being a good pastor without the love and support of a wife whom I had come to value and depend on more than any other person I have ever known.  Long ago I heard the admonition to not marry a woman I could live with, but to marry the woman I could not live without.  Perilous advice indeed!

Outwardly my children and I seem to have come through the worst of it.  But I am always mindful of the careful dance I have to do around the edge of impenetrable darkness, which can still open up like a crevasse before me at the most inopportune moments.  The whiff of a woman’s perfume carried on the breeze, a melody from a shared song from long ago, or just the sight of a couple walking hand and hand are among the hundred things that invoke longings which cannot be satisfied.

Debbie and I met as a result of a carefully arranged conspiracy between the small-town church I was assigned to in central Illinois and the high school where she was a popular teacher and athletic coach.  One afternoon a group of kids from the church youth group came to the parsonage and said that Coach Lake wanted to meet me because they had told her all about me.

The kids led me over to the nearby school athletic field where she was at practice with her softball team.  From the puzzled look on her face it was clear she had not been warned at all of this encounter.   We stammered a brief greeting and then she said she had to get back to her girls.  I walked back to the house not having a very high estimation of those kids and muttering to myself: “That went well…”  But at the same time it was if a harpoon had been thrust through my heart.  I would only much learn later she went home that same day and called her best friend, saying, “I think I just met the man I’m going to marry.”

One year later we were married.  The whole congregation came to the wedding, as did much of the school.  We were given an all-expense paid honeymoon trip to Jamaica.  The first night back in the parsonage we were shivereed under the bedroom window by a raucous group from the church.  Later that summer we spent three magical weeks in Europe with little more than a rail pass and a hostel guide.

Soon Debbie realized she shared a call to ministry every bit as real as mine.  She became a lay speaker and a C.E. director.  Eventually she would be highly sought after as a counselor and Bible study leader.   We developed a talent for preaching together and doing chancel dramas.  Eventually we were offering an annual family and marriage enrichment camp.  We had an open-door policy at our home for church members in the same way she had for her students.  If anyone popped in around the dinner hour chances are they would get an invitation to supper.  After the children were born we never lacked for babysitters.  As I look back, those were intense and cluttered but deliriously happy years.

Debbie was tall and lithe and a superb athlete.  We seemed unbeatable in tennis doubles.  On our first date we found we shared a passion for cycling.  We got in the habit of going on at least one annual long-distance bicycle ride for a week or so that offered us both adventure and much valued time alone with just each other.

But she did have an inherited heart murmur which we had checked several times a year both by our family doctor and occasionally by a heart specialist.  When we moved to our new appointment in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 2005, our new family physician recommended we have Debbie again tested by a specialist just to be on the safe side.  The heart doctor reassured us that her heart valve condition was not yet serious enough to warrant immediate treatment.  But he added, “On the other hand, why wait?”  He then told us a local regional hospital, he was associated with, specialized in heart surgery and was using a recently perfected minimally invasive procedure that virtually eliminated all the stresses and dangers of the traditional open-chest method.  Full recovery would only take a few days.

After what we thought was careful consideration, we decided to go ahead with the heart valve repair.  The surgeon we were assigned to was cheerfully disarming as he told us:  “Although there is always a very slight chance for infections and blood clots, this procedure is now so safe and easy on the patient it can almost be considered minor surgery.”  And, he added, because of my wife’s otherwise excellent physical condition she would be his “textbook patient.”

Debbie went on her customary 3K run just two days before the surgery.  She came back mentioning the beauty of a flock of white pelicans she saw alighting on the Mississippi River.  She also marveled that she always assumed people who were going to have an operation should be feeling sick.  But she never felt better.

Her distress would come later.  She never recovered from the surgery.  She was sent home from the hospital two days later although she was having dull chest pains.  Soon she lost her appetite, developed fevers and eventually could not even climb the stairs at home without gasping for breath.  We had her examined by the hospital doctors.  We were told she was not recovering because she was not eating right or trying hard enough to exercise.  I became increasingly worried but we always got the same answer to all of our inquires: “Just follow directions and everything will be fine.”  Five weeks after the surgery and only hours after my last call to her assigned nurse practitioner, Debbie suddenly cried out in great pain and died in my arms.

Immediately the hospital staff severed all contact.  I received only a call from the coroner’s office saying the hospital requested permission to do an autopsy.  It was if a wall of silence had come down with a deafening thud.  Several weeks after the funeral I attempted to approach the doctor who had performed the surgery.  But he answered all my questions only with a nonchalant shrug and a “who knows?”  I next went to the heads of the hospital department who were also heart specialists.  All they would say is that any heart surgery has potentially very great risk and this sort of thing just sometimes happens.  They told me in no uncertain terms there was no need to further investigate my wife’s death, the autopsy was inconclusive, the file was now closed and that was that.  They curtly added there would be no point for any further conversation on the subject.

I was furiously frustrated.  I sensed these people knew far more than what they were telling me.  I had a parishioner from a previous church who worked at the hospital and whom I recalled had once told me she originally worked in a coroner’s office.   I asked her to look at the autopsy report.  Upon my promise to never reveal her identity, she agreed.  She said it was a sloppy examination and speculated that it was probably done in haste by a rookie technician.  But the cause of death, although unstated, was clear enough:  prolonged internal bleeding from at least two sources.  Debbie’s heart probably went into cardiac shock from loss of blood.

My friend’s conjectures were later confirmed by a forensic pathologist I hired at my own expense.  The pathologist added that had Debbie been properly diagnosed and treated at any time after the surgery, chances were excellent that she would have survived.

My guilt and anger were overwhelming.  Why did I continue to trust her doctors and nurses when my gut was telling me all along something was terribly wrong?

Several months after Debbie died I had to report for evaluation by psychologists hired by the church conference.  I was told this was expected for clergy who suddenly lose a spouse.  It did not go well.  Neither one of the therapists had ever been married.  I don’t think they really understood what is involved when “two become one flesh.”  Instead, they wanted to talk about “closure,” “moving on” and the “transitory nature of all human relationships.”   I wanted to talk about love being stronger than death and the promise of resurrection.  I also was wrestling with how to forgive those responsible for committing such an outrage against my family.  The therapists told me it was natural to want to assign blame but they thought I was delusional and was refusing to face reality.

To this day I don’t claim to have all the answers.   On an outward level, these psychologists may be right.  Life certainly does appear to be little more a series of random occurrences in which we create fanciful connections in an attempt to make a meaningful narrative out of it.  Maybe we are solely at the mercy of impersonal natural forces and the unpredictable actions of others.  As for death, it is just as it appears to be, the natural and inevitable end of all living things.

Like Job from long ago, I will never get any explanation for why Debbie was taken from us in the prime of her life.  It would be easy to conclude that God carelessly allows our legs to be broken but still commands us to run.  The cup of condemnation poured out on Adam and Eve needs to claim billions more of their sons and daughters.  In my fretful dreams I sometimes saw God as a white coated doctor mutely staring at me with an attitude of complete indifference.

But no, I know such ponderings are erroneous.  God never explains undeserved suffering.  Rather he comes to us in Christ and fully enters into our suffering alongside of us (Isaiah 53:4-6).  He shoulders our grief and pain as his own.  I can sermonize on this until the cows come home but I still can’t adequately explain what this singular conviction now means to me.  All I know is that centering my thoughts and prayers on this divine compassion is what enables me to keep going.   Even in the loneliest of nights I seem to hear the faint note of promise that someday there will be the grand restoration of all things which have been lost to us.

Several years ago I visited the spot where someday our children will mingle the ashes of my mortal remains together with those of my beloved and then scatter them to the winds.  It is a beautiful location that has much meaning to my family.  But at the time of my visit it was a bleak and chilly winter day.  The sun was slipping quickly below the hills.  How tempting, I thought, to chase after the retreating sun and somehow continue to try to hold onto the fading light.  But then it occurred to me that I needed to turn in the direction of the approaching darkness and walk toward it.  Instead of vainly pursuing the day which was ending, I would then be journeying toward the day that was yet to come.

Farewell my beloved.  I will see you in the morning.

Cover drawing by Scott McMurray.

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