Overcoming Personal Loss

Every person’s life is worthy of a book. I hope you are writing yours, or saving and collecting the material to one day write it.

I am in the midst of mine.

For those of you who just tuned in, this is the next installment of my memoirs currently in production. The previous installments are available on my web page I hope you find it interesting.

The book is titled, Live Long*, Learn a Little, Laugh a Lot.

I looked down again at the little yellow card in my hand. It was dog eared from being taken out of my planning book every day. On the bottom of the card I read my handwritten note, “Turn every lemon into lemonade.” I laughed. I laughed a long, hollow, empty laugh that turned to sobs at the end. How ridiculous it seemed to battle the dragon of death with the puny sword of human optimism.

Time to ponder, even time to weep, is a luxury when you have a terminally ill wife and fifteen children. The tear reservoirs are soon emptied, and the dry sobs lose their ability to tap off the pressure on your mind and heart.

Then it is time to get up and put one foot in front of the other. I picked up my briefcase, went down the stairs and outside.

I climbed into my faithful but aging pickup truck. I eased it out of park, which didn’t hold anymore, into drive and gently pushed the accelerator. The truck was once a husky, three quarter ton with a hefty, cast iron block and four hundred cubic inches of plunging horse power. Its mechanical muscles were starting to sag from the many miles it had traveled. It was losing life too. Everything about me seemed a harbinger of death.

Diane met me at the door. She smiled with tired eyes and thin lips. We embraced, and both of us tried not to notice the growing bulge at her middle coming between us. Sometimes, we could almost imagine it was another pregnancy, like the ones we had worked through together. But those swellings were filled with life. This one, we knew, was filled with death.

We savored every moment we could be together during the following weeks. The cancer swelled within her. I contacted every resource we thought might help. I found that in the traditional medical circles as well as the non traditional, and even the folk remedies and unproved therapies, there was much more heat than light. Everybody knew something about cancer, but nobody knew enough. Each side often blamed the other for malpractice in treating the disease, but no one really knew what to do.

She had ovarian cancer. This is rare in a woman still bearing children, as she was. When they operated and removed the tumor, they felt they had got it all. We agreed to radiation treatments of the affected area to kill any remaining cancer cells. The treatments were hard on her constitution and digestive system, but they seemed to do the job. For several months she seemed cancer free. But then a routine checkup X-ray showed a tiny dark spot on her liver. That was the beginning of the end. A particle of the tumor, probably just a few cells, had broken free before the operation and floated into her liver. It was inoperable. She had received all the radiation her body could handle and we chose not to put her through the harsh effects of chemotherapy. There were no other options in traditional medical therapy.

We tried diet, homeopathic and other remedies. They may have helped some and slowed the cancer down, but nothing killed it. Diane grew weaker, thinner in all but her bloated liver. The blessings I gave her every morning kept down the pain but did not stop the growth of the malignancy. We chose to care for her at home with the help of home health nursing services.

Our third son, Joe, came home from his studies and work in Philadelphia. Robert, our second son, came from Arizona. Our fourth son, David, was counseled to stay on his mission in California, which he did. Our oldest son, Dan, and his wife were unable to come in from Japan. We gathered about Diane, talked with her, and listened to her last intelligible words. Then she grew too weak to say more than simple requests for water.

Three weeks later at 3:19 a.m., as I slept on the floor beside her bed, I had an unusual dream of travel and flight around and away from earth. I awoke and did not have to stir from my pillow to know that she was gone. I knew even before I realized that her labored breathing had stopped. As I examined her, there was no pulse, no breathing. The disfiguring swelling of her abdomen had already begun to recede. The cancer in its perverse nature had consumed its victim, and now would die itself. I called my neighbor Dr. Keith Hooker; he came and pronounced her dead. Then I called a mortician.

As I waited for him, I called the children. We met around the body of their mother. I told them to feel free to cry, now or whenever they needed to in the future, that I had cried and would cry again. But no one cried then. I said, “Your mother is not far away, even now. She is looking upon this scene and upon us and comforting us. We will see her and know her and be with her again. But for a time she has another work that she needs to do. We must carry on here. We will be together again in the future.”

The older children held the little ones in their arms. We talked about whatever they wanted to talk about. Mostly about what it means to be alive, what happens when we pass from this life to the next life through the portal which closes here and opens there, the door we call death. I told them, “Death has been pictured in an ugly mask by the superstitious and through horror stories and movies. But in reality, as you can see, it is a gentle and a quiet thing. Your mother’s face was twisted in pain, but is now relaxed. Her spirit, which was trapped in a diseased and helpless body, is now free, more free than ours.”

And so we talked and waited until the mortician came and took her away. Then we talked again. I have talked with the children many times since then, together and individually. Four-year-old Lucy, who watched in dry-eyed interest the work of the morticians, then later came to me in a quiet moment. “Daddy,” she said, “I cried when they took Mamma away. I cried inside.”

“So did I, Lucy. So did I,” I said.

At the end of that day at scripture reading and prayer, I complimented the children that we had survived the hardest day of our lives. Looking back, I think that is still true. There would be the funeral and burial, the long days of that hot summer, and our first Christmas without our mother; these were all hard, but the first day was the hardest.

It has been a tradition since as long as our children can remember that each night after scriptures and prayers they answer two questions from their father. The first is, “What was your happiest thing today?” The second is for the children over eight years of age. “What did you do to build the Lord’s kingdom today?” It might have seemed out of place, but I asked those questions again that night. The children all gave identical answers. “My happiest thing is that I know I will be with Mom again. What I did for the kingdom was I made it through the day.”

“That’s good,” I said. “That is enough.”

I understood for the first time how one could prefer to be in the next life rather than this one. If it were not for the children and for whatever work I am supposed to accomplish in this life, I would have preferred to move on.
Many dark dawns I stood at Diane’s grave and thought deeply. Sometimes I sank to my knees and wept hot tears on the cold headstone. But then I would have to stand up and plod homeward to the children and my work. Often I quoted aloud the words of Robert Frost from Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

The woods are lovely dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

Gradually over the weeks and months, the desire to die dissipated. I picked up the threads of my life and began to reweave them into a new tapestry. A beautiful new strand in the pattern appeared when Sharon Lee Johnson consented to be my wife. I know that the blessing of remarriage does not come to every person who loses a spouse to death or divorce. For those who don’t, the recovery from loss will probably be harder than mine was, but I believe it is still possible. Recovery does not mean reconstruction of what you had or what you were before. That is impossible. But it does mean making the most of the new condition in which you find yourself.

My experience is that only an eternal perspective can bring hope.

Excerpted from my book Overcoming Personal Loss.

Post Script:

We are Hiatts, and Hiatts, at least our branch of the family use humor as a source of entertainment, a lubricant in our human interactions, and a defense against life’s harsher side. The mortician was my cousin, and shares the familial funny bone. He insisted we take the funeral parlor’s white stretch limo and drive it around for the day to impress our friends. We did, and the effort was a success. Even today, grown with families of their own, the children remember the sorrow of the funeral and burial, but also the kookiness of being millionaires for a day. I know looking from her new home in heaven, Diane smiled.

The opera Pagliacci includes the moving tenor aria Vesti la giubba (put on the costume) as the clown prepares to take the stage while laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. His story is tragic. .Mine was only sad. But life goes on, and two weeks later I would be praying for help to write a happy song.


Everybody I know is busy, including me. Where are those golden years I was planning on of sitting on the back porch picking my guitar? So I will send just one little part of the book at a time. You can give it a quick read and tell me what you think if you would like.

I’ve slimmed that process down to two questions, and four strokes on the key board (six if you count “Reply” and “Send.”)

The questions are these:“A” How much did you enjoy this?“B” How much do you think a person who doesn’t know Duane Hiatt would enjoy this?

The rating is:1. Glanced at it, printed it out and lined the bottom of the bird cage with it.2. Sped-read it and filed it with my tax return receipts3. Thought it was about as interesting as a well written obituary4. Could have put it down, but didn’t want to5. Couldn’t put it down. Put it in a magnetic frame and stuck it onto the fridge door

So your response would perhaps be A-4, B-3, (Or maybe A-5, B-5, I’m expecting a minimum number of those.)

Also feel free to add comments if you like.

Also, also, feel free to forward this material to anyone you want to.