mental health


This is the “everything you always wanted to know about my wife’s death but were afraid to ask” story. People tend to be afraid to ask. Maybe because talking about death makes them feel uncomfortable (it shouldn’t). Or maybe because they think it makes me feel uncomfortable (it doesn’t). This took place between 12 and 19 July 2018.

Just before Dimitra and her mother take a taxi to the airport to spend a week in Crete, she tells me she is feeling a bit funny. “Like I had a stroke or something.” I tell her it will be alright because I think it will be and also because I am the kind of person who says these things ─ or at least I was back then. She just had some busy days visiting various people and places in Athens and today she has been packing, which she always finds stressful.

Three quarters of an hour later I too am in a taxi, knowing that my life has changed forever.

In the meantime, I had gone out to buy some food before the shops close and then, as I am about to go to the pet shop, her mum calls to tell me Dimitra isn’t well and that they’re going to the hospital. I am almost back home when she calls again, telling me the name of the hospital and urging me to come. “Please!”

I call a taxi, which frustratingly takes forever to come, and then intuitively go and get my teddy bear: we have two bears that we always take with us when we travel. I am surprised to discover Dimitra hasn’t taken her bear. This has never happened before. I squeeze both bears into my little bag and wait for the taxi to arrive.

Of course, there is a chance Dimitra’s mum is just panicking over something relatively minor. Mums can be like that. But it doesn’t feel that way. And when I arrive at the hospital, I learn that Dimitra is in the emergency room, which is certainly not a good sign.

I find her lying on a hospital stretcher. She is unconscious. The hospital isn’t the world’s most zen place ─ this is Greece and this is a hospital ─ and many doctors and nurses as well as patients and relatives are walking around. It isn’t very clear what is happening or what we are waiting for. Dimitra, meanwhile, lies there very peacefully.

Then a doctor comes and tells us it can be anything, from something minor to something serious and that they need to perform an MRI scan. For this, Dimitra is taken to a another part of the hospital where I help her lift onto the device. Dimitra isn’t exactly feather light and in her unconscious state obviously not cooperating well. We do eventually get her in the right place. Dimitra is thankfully not able to comment on my clumsiness.

The results of the MRI scan change the doctors’ assessments, which are now that she had a haemorrhage and that her condition is between serious and very serious. The terms ‘life threatening’ and ‘fighting for her life’ are mentioned.

This isn’t communicated as clearly as I write it down. I can order a bread in Greek, or tell a taxi driver how to go to our house. I have not yet reached the level where I can discuss life-threatening medical conditions. My mother-in-law’s English, though better than my Greek, hasn’t reached that level either, so some communication happens with Dimitra’s brother over the phone as a interpreter.

As it turns out, another hospital is better equipped to deal with her situation, and we are told they are waiting for an ambulance to take her there. When it arrives, we ─ me, my mother-in-law and the two teddy bears still in my bag ─ take a taxi and ask it to follow the ambulance.

In the other hospital more tests are being performed but it isn’t always clear what exactly is happening or what we are waiting for. The hospital is less crowded though and has long corridors for me to walk through to kill the time. I have a stupid football song stuck in my head ─ the men’s World Cup is taking place this week. I also think of Seamus Heaney’s final words to his wife: “don’t be afraid”.

I don’t think she will make it. I start thinking of what to do with my life after Dimitra dies. I conclude I will be alright and that is a comfortable thought. I am so certain she won’t make it I get a bit impatient with the hospital staff for not just telling me.

At the same time, I am getting worried about mundane things, like my need to go to the bathroom or the fact that my phone ─ that I use to keep relatives informed ─ is running out of battery almost as fast as the night progresses.

When the tests have all been done, Dimitra is taken to a proper hospital room that she shares with one other lady. She is still unconscious. We are told they keep her sedated to give her body a better chance to heal. Every now and then doctors need to perform some tests or adjust some of the machines she is connected to, but outside those times we are free to sit next to her.

I had never thought about what to say in such a situation. I end up sharing our favourite memories together. Like that magical moment a few years earlier, on a mountain in Austria, when a deer came running by very fast and so close it almost touched us.

As the night turns into morning we are told more information will be given by doctors who will arrive latter in the morning. I decide to go home to have a short break. As I open the front door, the cat comes running to me. “I think we have lost Dimitra” I tell him. Then I to go the bathroom, call my mother and to charge my phone.

Back in the hospital, we get confirmation that it is indeed a haemorrhage and that her condition is still life-threatening. We are told about the first 72 hours being the most critical. We are now at 14.

She will be taken to the ICU and we believe this will happen any moment. It ends up taking until late in the afternoon, for no reason that is clearly communicated to us. It doesn’t matter. The doctors are friendly and working hard. I just wait and see what happens.

A few more friends and relatives arrive. I spend some more time sitting next to her, share more memories and have the bears stroke her arms. I take a few photos of the bears leaning against her.

I walk some more throughout the hospital corridors. I have been awake for more than 24 hours but only occasionally feel very tired. My phone helpfully informs me I have taken 14,400 steps today.

When Dimitra is finally taken to the ICU, our job is more or less done. The ICU rules allow us visit her only one hour a day and the next visiting hour isn’t until the next afternoon. We are given a secret peak at how she is lying very calmly in bed number one, then we go home.

I am now getting more certain she will make it after all. She isn’t done yet.

In the evening I talk to a friend who shares my calm observation of the situation. I let a few other friends know what happened via email. Then I go to bed. I sleep well.

I do some shopping in the morning before we go to the hospital. There is no point in going earlier than the one hour visiting slot, something Dimitra’s mother will also realise after today. I can’t bring the bears into the ICU itself, but they are in my bag that I bring to the hospital. I smile when I talk to her. I cry. She looks peaceful and I know I don’t have to worry about her. She is being looked after well.

Indeed, I do not worry. Over the next few days, we learn a few more details about her situation. Some positive, some negative, most of them neutral and left up for us to interpret. It is fine. I learn what happens so that I can tell others about it, but that’s really the only reason I need to know.

The next few days are mostly the same. We visit the hospital during the one hour slot, spend some time together with friends and relatives and that is it. I do some things around the house. I do some work. And I continue to sleep well.

In the meantime, Dimitra makes it through the first 24, then 48 and then 72 hours. They are talking of doing another MRI scan so they can see whether she is ready to be woken her up, but a slight complication arises in that there has been an infection in her lungs, a possible side-effect of the haemorrhage. This needs to heal first.

Tuesday, five days after the haemorrhage, something changes inside me. I start to get a bit impatient. I want to know when they will wake her up and what state she will be in. There are mentions of very long recovery processes. Of possible permanent damage. We are well over a 100 hours in now and no one talks of the possibility of this being fatal any more.

On Wednesday morning I do some work before we make our daily trip to the hospital. Then my mother-in-law comes into my room. She tells me that the hospital called her and that something is up with Dimitra’s lungs. She calls Dimitra’s brother and passes the phone to me. “Dimitra is gone” he says.

I thank him and forget to ask whether this means that she has died, or maybe that just they know she will not make it. I tell a few people the sad but still somewhat uncertain news. I call my mother. Only much later will I learn that “being gone” is the Greek way of saying someone has passed.

So the news of Dimitra’s death is slightly lost in translation. It is one of the many small but genuinely funny moments of this strange week.

While we are waiting to be picked up go to the hospital, Dimitra’s mother asks me to help her find some clothes, including clean underwear and a bra, for Dimitra to wear in the coffin. Apparently, dead people wear clean underwear. Apparently, if they have breasts they wear a bra.

In the meantime, I remember how five and a half days earlier, I had been thinking about what my life would look like after her death and how I knew I would be alright. I am glad I am prepared. It is all quite surreal, but I do feel calm.

When we get to the hospital, some relatives have already arrived. Dimitra is in a small room, probably a small mortuary. She doesn’t look pretty, like she has been badly punched. I touch her. I cry. I thank her. Then things become too much for a moment and I leave the room.

Greek funerals generally take place the next day and this is what will happen for Dimitra as well. A few practicalities are discussed with the funeral director and then we are done. A relative and I go to a bakery to buy some food. Nothing in the bakery suggests that life is any different now that I have become a widower. It is good.

I talk to some friends on the phone in the afternoon while most of Dimitra’s relatives remain downstairs. I arrange for my mother to fly over for the funeral. I feel a strong sense of purpose about my life.

At some point, Dimitra’s father comes to me and says “thank you”. Nothing more. Just that. Given the complicated relationship Dimitra had with her father, and given how I didn’t always understood this well enough, this would be one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

I go to bed on time, but I only sleep about half an hour during the night. I am lucky to have friends around the world who are in different time zones and I talk to a few of them online. I worry about the future. I worry about finding meaning during the rest of my life.

And I worry about all the things that made us. The bears in particular. I realise I will never send Dimitra an email on behalf of bear when I am travelling any more. When I finally give up getting more sleep, I ask a cousin of hers if I can send her emails on the bears’ behalf instead. I can.

I pick up my mother from the airport and together we take a taxi to the cemetery. I had never attended a funeral in Greece before and I don’t know the procedures. I have already decided that whether or not I will be able to see Dimitra once more, it will be fine.

It turns out I can still see her, lying in a beautiful black coffin. She looks a lot better than the day before, but with lots of make up, which she rarely wore. I thank her once again. I tell her I will be alright. I know I will be. And then I have the bears have a final peak at her.

Outside the little room she is in, I speak to friends and relatives and point out to my brother-in-law that Dimitra would have told her mother off for sitting there next to the coffin, crying so loudly. He decides to tell her and she thinks it is funny. It is, because it is true.

There is a short ceremony in the church, after which we take Dimitra to her grave. The coffin is lowered into the open hole as clumsily as I had lifted her onto the MRI scanner a week earlier. It is funny.

And that is it. The rest of my life has now truly started. It was a strange but in many ways beautiful week, just like the year that followed would be strange but often very beautiful.

Dimitra is gone, but she will be with me forever. Everything is good.