‘He was in tears. ‘Baby, it’s bad news.’ It was our last conversation. He was unable to talk the very next day.’: Widowed mother ‘piecing life back together’ after tragic loss of husband

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“When I was 36 years old, my husband died of blood cancer. At the time he was diagnosed almost a year earlier, we had a 4-month-old daughter, we had just celebrated our third wedding anniversary, I was suffering from postnatal depression, I was scheduled for major corrective surgery in a few days, and I was running my own full-time business.

My husband, Kurt, was the healthiest human I knew. I’d never even seen him suffer from a cold or flu in the 7 years we’d been together. One morning, the day after our wedding anniversary, he jumped out of the shower and asked me if I thought his stomach felt a bit hard. I felt the harder area he was referring to and nonchalantly commented he should see the doctor. That afternoon, life unraveled at break-neck speed.

Newlywed couple cutting their wedding cake
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

The hard area was a large growth on his spleen. An urgent CT scan revealed widespread lymphoma, and despite having no symptoms initially, his health deteriorated so rapidly he would have been dead within a few weeks had he not initially responded well to urgent chemotherapy intervention. I remember standing in the hospital hallway, holding our baby girl, being asked if my husband had a will, as there was a good chance he wasn’t going to make it.

I remember it feeling so surreal. I just couldn’t wake up from this nightmare I was having—the hospital corridor seemed to cave in on me. I wasn’t coping well as a new mom. On the outside, I was holding it together, but behind closed doors, I was a mess. I had taken only 2 weeks off work after having our daughter and was back running my business with a newborn baby under my desk.

Husband and wife in hospital holding their newborn baby wearing scrubs
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

Kurt was the only thing propping me up. He took to parenting with ease and was a wonderful dad. He was my rock, he was my best friend, he was my soulmate—he was my everything, to be honest. I remember thinking to myself just before our nightmare started, ‘I’ve done it, I’m through the worst of it. I’m feeling a bit better, I still have my business intact, everything’s going to be okay.’ Only a few days later in a cruel twist of fate, nothing was ever going to be the same again, and life as I knew it was about to implode. As I stood at the top of my imaginary conquered mountain and congratulated myself for ‘making it,’ for working so hard for the amazing life we had created, an avalanche came out from underneath me…

Father holding his smiling baby up in the air
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

Initially, Kurt responded well to chemotherapy. I set up my workstation in the hospital and would work from his room all day whenever he was having treatment. Things were looking positive. However, we then learned the tumors were growing again and had multiplied. It was at this time we started researching CAR-T immunotherapy in the United States as a backup plan. Kurt didn’t respond to the salvage chemo options—we fundraised as much as possible in New Zealand to contribute toward the immense cost of the treatment, and we managed to have him accepted onto an immunotherapy trial in Boston. Kurt spent 4 months in Boston undergoing CAR-T therapy, and I flew to and from Boston running my business and momming the best I could.

Man lying in hospital bed
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

On December 26, Kurt had what they termed a ‘repositioning scan.’ He rang me immediately on the morning of the 27th when he received the result. I answered the phone and held my breath. I realized he was in tears. ‘Baby, it’s bad news.’ I remember the words ‘innumerable tumors,’ ‘progressive disease,’ and something about ‘massive.’ My body let out a sound I didn’t know it was capable of producing… like a punch to the heart that emptied both lungs at once through my mouth. My legs gave out and I dropped to my knees, the phone fell from my hand. I didn’t weep, I cried with an intensity I didn’t know we were even capable of. It felt like I had a rope wrapped around my throat a few times, and I couldn’t breathe. Doctors advised immediate flights home to New Zealand.

Man swinging on rope above body of water
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

We ended our conversation with desperate ‘I love you’s.’ I walked around the corner and into my dad, the sound came out again, and I think I fell on him. He held on to me while I completely broke apart. This is the last conversation Kurt and I ever shared, as he was pretty much unable to talk the very next day. We managed to get Kurt home safely on New Year’s Eve. Kurt died in a hospital here in New Zealand on January 7, just less than a year since he found the hard area in his abdomen.

I was with him when he passed. I’ve had to work through the trauma of watching him suffer so badly the last week and witnessing him take his final breaths. We live in a society that is very averse to hearing about or witnessing death, and the only references we seem to have are what we see in the movies.

Mother and father with smiling baby between them
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

I was haunted by the reality of watching someone die so painfully, watching my fit, strong, healthy, completely gorgeous husband’s body betray him. Watching him wither away to nothing was the most painful experience of it all. I was with him when he took his last breath, I held my breath waiting for him to take another but it didn’t happen, and in this moment, I felt my heart energetically tear right through the middle. When he died, life as I knew it died with him. The woman I was died with him, and I’ve been piecing life back together and finding myself again ever since.

At first, I was as eager to put as much distance between myself and these gut-wrenching final memories as possible. But now, with each month, there’s a sense of sadness as time and life continue to tick away without my love. I can tell you, with hand on heart, I have vowed to live life with a depth I previously wouldn’t have had the guts to.

Husband and wife wearing red dress smiling together
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

With true purpose. With real meaning, honesty, integrity, vulnerability, and connection. I think it wasn’t until I witnessed him take his last breath I became truly aware of the gift that is my own. Death is the only certain for all of us, but what we do each and every day until our own time comes is all that truly matters. Because when you’re sitting with someone in their final days, you don’t talk about the things you bought, the number of Instagram followers you amassed, or what your business turnover was last year. No, you share the favorite moments you spent together, the life you made with each other. The trips you took, the places you visited. You reminisce on your beautiful wedding day, the day your child was born, the most magic sunrises and sunsets you shared. Your first kiss and you share your last kiss.

Husband and wife holding baby in front of trees
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

Despite the immense pain of the last 2 and a half years, I am so fiercely proud of the woman I have become and continue to become. I have promised myself our nightmare will not be in vain. I will use our horrific experience to try and help others walking the same painful path, and to ensure I might also help others to be grateful for their own blessed and trouble-free existence each and every day, in the hope it might inspire others to also live with greater depth and gratitude because of our tragedy. So often I ask myself, ‘What would Kurt do?’ and it’s always the right answer. Because Kurt really did live each day like it was a gift in itself, maybe he knew all along his days would be numbered, but he made each and every one count.

Two women standing in front of casket with flowers on it
Courtesy of Janelle Brunton-Rennie

I’ve shared our entire cancer treatment journey, the aftermath of his death, and my grief and healing journey over the last 2 and a half years on Instagram, and I’ve been grateful to have received support from all over the world. Our daughter, Sage, is now 3 and a half, we talk about Daddy a lot. It’s important to me we honor Kurt as best as we can, so he’s not forgotten. Grief has been desperately hard, I still can’t believe just how painful it truthfully is. I have been committed to honoring my grief, actively sharing my healing process, and finding a way to not only survive but to thrive again one day.

Mother wearing dress sitting with daughter smiling in grass
Emily Chalk Photographer

At the start of my grief journey, I was told, ‘Just keep living until you feel alive again,’ and that’s all I focused on. A kind of survival mode, making sure I kept Sage alive, kept myself alive, and kept my business alive so I could provide for us. I wish the me from 3 years ago could have been visited by me now… I wish I could go back and tell that terrified woman, standing in the hospital ward, holding her small baby, blinking furiously under those bright fluorescent lights, trying to wake up from what she hoped was just a nightmare. I wish I could tell her she was going to be okay.

Mother wearing black hugging blonde daughter and smiling
Emily Chalk Photographer

Yes, things were going to get a whole lot worse yet, but I wish I could just hold her, and let her know she was going to get through this. There are still harder days and many sad moments, but once there were only fleeting moments of reprieve among days and days of darkness. To anyone out there navigating those halls of hell right now, I know it’s hard to believe it, but one day you’ll wake up and the day won’t feel quite as heavy, and those days will slowly happen more and more regularly, I promise.

Black and white photo of mother and daughter
Emily Chalk Photographer

It’s been more than 3 years since that hospital hallway moment, and I am okay… In fact, I dare say most of the time I’m happy, but grief comes in waves and I know to expect fluctuations. Grief isn’t something we ever get over, grief is something we must learn to live with. And this is exactly what I’m doing, I’m learning to live with it. It is said pain changes your life forever, and so does healing from it.”

Mother and daughter looking into each other's eyes and smiling
Emily Chalk Photographer

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Janelle Brunton-Rennie of Auckland, New Zealand. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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