Written by Chris Gersten
My oldest son’s father-in-law passed away recently after a battle with bone cancer and MS. I watched my daughter-in-law Joan diligently travel over 100 miles almost every weekend for two years to spend time with her father, often taking two or more of their five children with her. Joan’s sister and mother, Nancy, were also by Peter’s side as he struggled.
During the final month, Peter’s wife and daughters were with him to support him and each other, making huge personal sacrifices to be with him in his final days. My son took time off of work to stay at home so he could babysit during Peter’s final weeks.
When I look back at this painful experience for Peter and his family I understand how important it was for each of the family members that Peter and Nancy were together, married for fifty years, till the end.
We know a lot about how healthy it is for men, women, and children to live in intact married families. We know that married men live almost nine years longer than single men. We know that children do better when raised in two-parent married families on every measurable variable of well-being.
But we rarely hear about how important it is for all of the members of a family that their parents are still married during the most painful time in life, the slow deterioration that accompanies a life-ending illness. How much comfort did Peter receive from being constantly surrounded by his wife, his children and grandchildren? How much less painful to know you will face your final days with your family by your side? How much strength does each family member receive from being with the surviving spouse and with siblings, who are so much likelier to have stayed connected if their parents stayed married? How much comfort does the surviving spouse receive when children travel long distances to provide comfort to both parents?
I had a friend; we’ll call him Larry, who decided, after thirty years of marriage, that the grass looked a lot greener outside his marriage. He was sixty years old when he decided that he could have a lot of girlfriends if he just weren’t married. So he dumped his wife for the prospect of a life filled with romance and unlimited sex. Exactly three months and no girlfriends after he divorced his wife, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Larry decided that it would be better to live out his final days with his former wife than spend them chasing women. Only his wife had moved on. Larry had closed the door on her and had to suffer and die alone.
Larry was only thinking about the moment, when he left his successful marriage for the hope of unfulfilled sexual exploits. He was not thinking about his life a year down the road, or five years. He destroyed his marriage, had no sexual exploits, and denied himself the comfort of a loving spouse as his health deteriorated over the following six months.
Surely, when we anticipate our own passing, we all want to be surrounded by our families. But divorce tears the family apart. Not only do we break from our spouses, but siblings are often separated or forced to choose between one parent or the other, and these choices and the conflicts that ensue, often last a lifetime. Grandchildren usually do not have the same close relationships with divorced grandparents.
We know that an intact family is the best vehicle for raising physically and emotionally healthy children. But it is also extremely supportive and comforting during a prolonged illness and the final days of life. From birth to death, the intact two-parent married family is the ultimate support system.