Jeff's story – living without my wife

Thursday 25 October

Jeff's story – living without my wife

We'd like to share Jeff's story with you. Jeff and his family came to Maggie’s for support when Jeff’s wife Tara was diagnosed with incurable cancer. When Tara died last year, support from Maggie’s helped Jeff and his young daughter Ruby adjust to the massive challenges of life without her.

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"The day my wife, Tara, discovered a lump in her breast is seared into my memory. It was a Sunday morning in 2009 and I was downstairs with our nine-month-old daughter, Ruby, ready to go out for the day. I heard a scream, Tara ran down the stairs in a towel, white as a sheet.

“What’s up?” I asked. “I’ve found a lump,” she replied. We went for a biopsy, and my strong, intelligent wife looked like a child. What we couldn’t know then was that the next eight years would come to be defined by cancer. Tara would soon be diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37, and we would spend years hoping, fighting, crying and sticking by one another.

Tara was determined to beat the disease, and that Ruby would have a normal childhood. For a time it looked like that might be possible. The cancer went into remission, and in 2013 we moved to Switzerland, where Tara was offered a job. But, three months into our new lives, Tara felt a pain in her side. Shadows on a scan showed that the cancer had returned. After 18 months and up to eight different kinds of chemotherapy in Switzerland, the doctors said: “We’re really sorry, we think it’s time you go back home to be with your family.”

After we moved back, Tara and I went to Maggie’s, where I joined a support group for the families and carers of people with cancer. There were two men who had seen their wives die of cancer, and they told me what to expect. They were very clear about one thing: “You’ve got to tell your daughter now.” You don’t get this kind of knowledge anywhere else. They helped me face what was to come.

Ruby was five-and-a-half and surprised me by saying: “Mummy’s had cancer before.” She had been so young when Tara was first diagnosed that we had never discussed it with her. How could she know? “Because when I was little I can remember Mummy having short hair.” Children pick up on these things.

Doctors gave Tara months to live, a year if she was lucky. Amazingly, through sheer will, she lived for another three years. We had many happy times, but we knew Tara’s cancer could get worse quickly and without warning. In her final weeks, I knew Tara was dying. She was yellow from jaundice, restless and had lost her appetite.

Doctors said there was nothing more they could do. Friends I had met at Maggie’s told me I should start getting my house in order, because these are all the signs it will happen soon. Tara refused to write a letter to our daughter or pull together memories for her. Doing something like that, she said, would be admitting she was going to die – and she wasn’t ready. But I insisted we make a silver pendant for Ruby with Tara’s thumb print on it, which arrived just in time for Tara to give it to Ruby the last time she saw her.

I prepared for Tara’s death by shaving off my big, bushy beard. For five years it had been a barrier between me and the real world: you could see my eyes but not all of my emotion. Now, I wanted my face shaved so my wife could see me as I was the first time we met. A couple of hours before Tara passed, I was lying on a bed in the hospice next to her. Earlier that evening, I had thanked her for being a wonderful wife and mother, for giving me a daughter and for fighting for so long. Now I had to tell her to die. Her eyes were closed but she was restless, and you could see she was fighting with her demons. “Tara, it’s time to go,” I said. “You’ve fought a hard fight but the time has come to say goodbye.” She calmed down and passed away soon after.

I’ve been incredibly upset, lonely and angry since. I’m not angry with my wife, I’m angry with the cancer. Ruby isn’t ready to talk about her mum, but I will be here when she wants to. I know Maggie’s will be there for us, too. I have collected photographs, letters from my wife’s friends, and memories from her family. It’s a year since we lost Tara, and there are moments when it gets too much. When I’m upset, Ruby gives me a hug, rubs my arm and says, “It’s OK, Daddy.”

There’s no doubt we keep each other going. Last year, I was warming vials under my arm so the liquid didn’t hurt when it was injected into Tara’s arm. This year, Im learning to master hair bunches. This morning, Ruby told me, “Dad, you did them really well, you’re getting good at this.”

What has happened to us shouldn’t happen to any family. We can’t stop cancer from taking away parents, wives and husbands, but when that does happen, the family that’s left behind need support to carry on. Maggie’s, and the people we’ve met there, helped Tara and me through the incredibly difficult times of her illness, and support from Maggie’s was also vital in helping us to carry on after Tara died and our family was changed forever."

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A gift this Christmas, however large or small, will make sure that when someone has to hold their family together as they watch their loved one die, or for those who survive but whose treatment and worries are no less easy to bear, there’s someone there to support them.

This interview is provided with thanks to The Telegraph.