Widow Wednesday: I Don’t Know How

When people ask, I don’t know what to say. Because I don’t really know what happened to cause Mark’s death. The physicians had theories but could never say for sure. It would be easier to be able to say “cancer” or “heart attack” but I can’t. Well, I could, but that would be a lie. Instead, I sort of stumble around. I could say he starved to death because he literally did (I never say this because it makes me feel awful). I could say he had organ failure because he did (but I don’t because I just thought of it). I could say that if it had happened all at once it would have been that he choked to death (which is sometimes what I say).  But I don’t have a short answer so the person who asked and I both end up feeling awkward. Or maybe it’s just me who does. The thing I don’t say is that he died of cirhosis of the liver even though it’s what is on his death certificate. And I don’t say it because it’s what the first set of doctors said, but the second set of doctors contradicted it.

So, I say that Mark got a stomach bug, couldn’t stop throwing up, and every time he threw up he aspirated, and every time he aspirated it caused brain damage, until finally there was enough brain damage that he went into a coma that he wasn’t going to recover from, so I had his body taken off of life support, he breathed on his own but he slowly wasted away over 8 days until he finally stopped breathing. But that’s just what we *think* happened. Because except for the brain damage, Mark’s body was perfectly healthy when we took him off life support. Because we weren’t able to do an autopsy, even though his physician ordered it, because of a bureaucratic mix up. Simple, no?

I get mad every time I see Mark’s death certificate because he worked so hard to get sober, I hate that it has cirrhosis of the liver as his cause of death.

Not that you asked.


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  1. I never understood how important a sense of closure could be around how a person died, until I lost my own husband. I remember in the early days how I needed to have that final image of him in my mind so that I could really believe he was actually gone. With my husband, there was no real mystery, so at least on that front, things were clear. I’m sorry you have this extra layer of complexity surrounding Mark’s death. I’m glad you’ve written about it here.

  2. That is hard. Those 8 days must have been a lifetime.

    I did a news obit about a sweet girl who had died from complications of the flu at age 14. It was all very sudden – she went into the hospital and a few days later, she was gone. I wrote a lovely tribute to her, but the county medical officer refused to say it was flu, since she technically died of pneumonia following the flu, and he didn’t want the county to panic because OMG flu. So the headline read “Cause of girl’s death under examination.” It was all so sordid and weird and I ended up crying with her parents for about an hour.

    1. Suebob~I’m sure that felt like a big lie for her parents. Also, the flu isn’t something to play around with, maybe the county would have benefited from a little worry, it’s too bad the medical examiner felt that way. I’m glad you grieved with her parents though, I’m sure that was a huge help to them.

  3. I am more of I know how, but not when. In the case of my Mom, it took several days for the police to track me down. I know it was late on a Friday night and I was watching AbFab. It also isn’t clear how long she was in her room when they found her. They just listed the time of death as the day they found her. She was an alcoholic and died from it, although she had managed to stay sober for about a year before falling off the wagon again. That was part of why I moved to Austin.

    In the case of my sister, I didn’t know for a year that she had died, although I had been told she had Gillian Barr before I moved back to the Bay Area. And I am still not sure of the exact date as I haven’t requested a death certificate.

    I think that even if I did know exactly when they died it wouldn’t really change anything. They would still be dead. I would still grieve.

    I think when people ask, really what they want to know is did the person die in an accident, a crime, or were they ill. This is especially true if the person died young. And really most people are asking to sustain their own curiosity. They want to know what the chances are it could happen to them. A few people ask because they do care. You should be able to tell who is who, and adjust what you say accordingly.

    1. Chris~I’m sorry. I know you’re right, that for some people it’s just curiosity and fear. I also know that it probably only bothers me that there is any ambiguity around Mark’s death. Actually, I know that’s not true, it really bothered his Hospitalist.

  4. Honey I am so glad I read this. I always have people ask me, why? I really cant answer them either. Usually I give the aspiration theory. Everyone gets mad about not being able to get the autopsy done. No one understands it.
    Love you sweetheart and am always so proud of how you have handled this part of your life. You have done an amazing job with “N” knowing his Daddy Mark.

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