Losing a spouse has to be one of the most traumatic things that can ever happen to a person. Some people never recover from it. thislife is humbled by, and grateful to, three Capetonians who have had the courage to share how it feels, and what helps them through…
Shoe agent Sue Marr was born and raised in Durban. Her husband Johnny, a surgeon, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2011, and died two months later. Sue lives in Rondebosch with her three children, Oliver (18), Jean (16) and Matthew (13)
‘I guess it’s not to be recommended, but I actually did meet the love of my life in a pub. We were both students at the time. I was studying at Stellenbosch, and Johnny at UCT. I liked him immediately and was a bit taken aback when he stood me up on our very first date! He had a good excuse (mistiming a cycle training ride) and, luckily, I forgave him. We were together 25 years, and married for 21.
We had a great marriage. He was an independent spirit and so am I, yet I believe we were soul mates. We fought, that’s for sure, but we also shared many interests such as gardening, cycling and the beach. Of course, our three children only strengthened the bond we shared.
I remember that early in our marriage, I asked Johnny to choose between us and his bicycle as I needed him to spend more time with me and the children! He graciously complied and chose not to pursue his cycling beyond casual participation. A memory I treasure is of us doing the Argus together, and him placing his hand on the small of my back, pushing me up every hill.
We were shocked when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Johnny was a specialist in the area, so for him, there was no illusion as to the terminal outcome of such a diagnosis. Looking back, this actually helped us deal with it. He never kept anything from me or the children. Every time there was another test result or procedure, he would explain the best and worst case scenarios to us.
Although we constantly prayed and hoped for a miracle, we faced the situation head on, right from the start. We had incredibly frank, open conversations. Obviously, these were often very emotional. I’m so grateful that during the short time he was ill, he was able to affirm his pride in each of our children, assuring them of his love. Nothing went unsaid. Throughout his illness, Johnny’s faith was unwavering. He was sure of where he was going, so never for a moment did he fear death. This helped all of us deal with the inevitable.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and realise afresh that the love of my life is no longer with me. However, it’s not long before I’m comforted by God’s presence, and the knowledge that I’m never alone. After Johnny died, I think some people almost expected me to turn my back on God. The fact is, God never promised any of us that we would live forever. In life, the one thing we can be sure of is death! Thankfully, there’s something else we can be sure of: He will never leave us or forsake us. This promise is repeated over and over in the Bible. Through this tragedy, I’m learning what it is to really trust God. He’s my lifeline.
Even so, coping with loss and grief is very exhausting. We have an incredible circle of friends who have supported us from the day Johnny was diagnosed, such as with a steady supply of meals and help with school lifts. These practical considerations have been extremely helpful, and seeing how much people care is a great comfort in itself. Our family meets with a close group of friends once a month to share life and a meal together – something we look forward to for its comfort and security. For two years, I limited myself to seeing a small circle of very good friends, and only now am I beginning to feel confident to accept social invitations.
I was given excellent advice not to make any major changes for the first two years after Johnny died and have tried to keep life as normal as possible for our family. Luckily, we weren’t financially forced to move house or change the children's schools, though we have now chosen to move closer to one school. I’ve kept my job, which in itself has been a blessing. We try to eat together as a family, and on Monday mornings we stick to a favourite family ritual: pancakes for breakfast. This has always been our way of easing the blow of a new week.
Another great help was a book by Jerry Sittser called ‘A Grace Disguised – How the Soul Grows through Loss’. This shows how it’s ‘possible to live in, and be enlarged by, loss’. I would recommend it to anyone, as loss touches all of us at some stage.
My favourite quote at the moment is one I’ve slightly adapted from the novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’.
‘I miss him all the time.I know in my head that he's gone but I still keep looking for him.The only difference is that I am getting used to the pain.It's like discovering a huge hole in the ground. To begin with you forget it's there and keep falling in. After a while, it’s still there, but you learn to walk around it.’
Ollie, Jeanie, Matt and I are learning to walk around the huge hole in our ground.’
Carpenter Loramer Darvel was born in District Six. Forcibly evicted with his family when he was six, he grew up in Grassy Park and now lives in Zeekoevlei. He met his wife Desi (Desiree), a clothing machinist, in 1983. They had two sons, Dorian (29) and Kyle (26). Desi died in 2012
‘I met Desi through a girl I was dating (not a serious relationship!). I gave Desi and some other girls a lift to a club in Wynberg. It was a time of fuel restrictions, and as I dropped the girls there, I realised I didn’t have petrol for the journey home. I asked for a companion to come with me to the garage, and Desi volunteered. We never made it back inside the club and ended up sitting in the car, talking. We were always together after that.
We married in 1988, and were best friends from the start. It wasn’t like Hollywood, everything moonshine and roses: our love grew with time. We did most things together. She would even phone me from the supermarket to ask me what I thought she should buy. We especially liked going to cricket at Newlands.
Our life was turned upside down when Desi was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in May 2011. She was also diagnosed with anti-phospholipid syndrome, which means your blood thickens at an alarming rate. Then she developed Asherson syndrome, which is basically incurable. Everything happened very quickly. She lost her first leg in July 2011, and the other one three months later, on Dorian’s 27th birthday. Then she had a series of strokes and lost her speech. She died in March 2012.
She had a strong faith, Desi. She always used to say: ‘Loramer, ons moet bid en vertrou’ (we must pray and trust). When she got sick, that’s exactly what she did. Not once did she become bitter or angry. That gave me a lot of strength. She did as much as she possibly could, even after she’d been confined to a wheelchair. I remember one Saturday morning when she had already lost her speech. I was just about to iron a shirt when she came wheeling past me, grabbed the shirt and gestured to me that she would do it. I went ahead and made breakfast while she took care of the laundry.
Desi died on a Sunday morning. The nurse called me from the hospital. We knew how sick she was, but it still came as a shock: she had looked so much better the night before.
Since she died, my sons have been amazing. Both live with me, and it’s a great comfort to have them around. My youngest son also calls me at least twice a day to find out how I’m doing. It means so much. My mother, brother and sister also really show their love − my brother doesn’t live in Cape Town but calls regularly − and it’s a great comfort to know they’re all thinking of us. Usually I don’t like being fussed over, but this past year, I’ve really appreciated it. Another thing that helped was a Griefshare course I did at St John's Church in Wynberg. I’d recommend it to anyone who has to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Nothing could prepare me for life without Desi. Our house was always full – we loved entertaining. Now it’s empty. I suppose friends don’t visit us because they don’t want to talk about Desi! I soon realised all the things she did in the house despite us theoretically ‘sharing’ chores, and my finances took a spin: I tended to overspend on luxuries in an attempt to console myself and the boys, and put on a lot of weight!
One thing I didn’t like were the kind of things people say at funerals, such as ‘She’s in a better place’ and ‘it’s God’s will’. You know they’re just running out of clichés and that they’re not being genuine. Those people haven’t come around since the funeral to find out how I am or how the boys are doing.
God has shown me in so many little ways that He always takes care of me. The other day I really needed my car, but it was on the blink. The mechanic had said it needed to go in for testing. But I prayed, fiddled with the fuel injector pipes, and the car started. I believe God helped me out that day!
Six weeks before Desi died, they broke into my place. My video camera, my laptop, all my photos of her - gone. I believe even that’s a good thing. If I had them now, I’d be sitting around watching videos of her. Now I’ve one photo and that’s enough. I visit her grave often. She’s still telling me to bid en vertrou.’
★ The Griefshare course is run by St John’s Parish, 021 671 4732 or Meadowridge Baptist Church 021 712 1218
Sally Prins was born and educated in KwaZulu Natal. She met her husband, Chucky (real name: Jurian), a structured lender in private banking, and they married in 2004. He was killed in a car crash when she was pregnant with their second child, Leah, and their son James was 21 months old. James is now six, and Leah is four. Sally is a content specialist at an asset management company. ‘I met Chucky at a party in London. A few days later, he asked a mutual friend to organise a dinner where we chatted all night! We kept in touch via email after that, and when I decided to move back home a few months later he phoned and said, ‘If you ever come back to London, call me!’ After a few months in South Africa I decided to spend another year in London, and, on one of my first nights back, I ran into him in a pub. We became friends again, and after a year or so we got together. We married three years later.
Although I never imagined I’d marry an Afrikaans boy, I couldn’t have been happier. I was blessed with the most remarkable husband, soul mate and person for eight years. No words will ever do Chucky justice. He was the most balanced person I’ve ever met. In our marriage I felt supported and treasured, and I knew there was nothing in the world he wouldn’t do for James and me.
The news of his death came as a complete shock. It was a Tuesday morning and Chucky had left early for a meeting in Somerset West. He never made it back. It was raining heavily, and on the way home his car skidded and hit a tree. He died instantly. I was at home that morning and didn’t think anything of it when Sollie, his business partner, rang the doorbell. When Sollie told me what had happened, I refused to believe him. I could get my head around the fact that there’d been an accident, but I couldn’t believe Chucky was actually dead. I kept asking Sollie if he was sure that Chucks had died.
My greatest challenge has been single parenting. Telling James that his ‘Pappa’ was never coming home was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. Another was bringing my beautiful baby girl into the world alone. On that day, Chucky wasn’t there to hold my hand, and it brought home the reality that he would be absent from our lives forever, and that wonderful happy moments would forever be tinged with sadness.
I’ve been truly humbled by how friends and family have rallied around me. My parents, two sisters and their husbands have been incredible. I’ve never had to face any part of this journey alone. My mom, who lives in Natal, spent more time with me in the first year than back home with my dad! My family have been here for birthdays and milestones, and any time I’ve needed them. When they couldn’t be here, I’ve felt so supported through phone calls, emails and smses.
My ‘other family’ down here in Cape Town has been just as amazing. For the first couple of months, our fridge overflowed with all the meals people brought us, while others took James out to give me a break on a Saturday, walked our dog or did ‘handyman’ jobs for me. Author Verdell Davis writes ‘Loss is a hole in our heart. But it is a hole that calls forth love and can hold love from others’. I will be forever grateful to all the amazing people who have filled my ‘hole’ with so much love!
My faith took quite a knock as I struggled to comprehend how a loving God could allow this to happen. Chucks was such a good person, such an amazing dad – why did he have to die? Leah and James would never know their dad and that was the most difficult thing for me to face. I could deal with my own loss, but my heart broke for my children.
I made up my mind, right at the start, to see a counsellor. My worst fear was waking up 10 years from now and realising I’d never dealt with my husband’s death. I saw Jodi once a week for about a year. It was good to take an hour out of my busy schedule to sit down and talk with someone about what I was going through. Life was so busy with two babies that there often wasn’t time to be sad, but these weekly sessions allowed me to assess where I was on this journey of grieving. With time, I grew to realise that it was only God’s grace that had sustained me and my family. The only reason we’re still standing today is because of His grace and His love.
In the beginning, I found it very difficult to see the world around us continue with life as usual while ours was turned upside down. Many times I wanted to shout to the world: ‘You have no idea what I face every day, the challenges, the heartache, the exhaustion!’ Eventually you move beyond that, beyond feeling bitter at the world for carrying on. Life will always be bittersweet. But you start to reach a level of acceptance.’