Fran Smith and Sheila Himmel

Changing the Way We Die

Until Death Do Us Part

Why some couples say "I do" even though a partner is dying.

Posted Nov 07, 2013

One of the scariest things about facing the end of life is thinking that we might have regrets and not enough time to make things right. So it’s fascinating to find out how terminally ill people respond when someone on the hospice team asks them if there’s one thing they really want to do. It’s surprising when people who are dying make that most forward-looking of life choices—getting married.

One hospice wedding this year was the culmination of a long love story. Sheryl Pik and Jeffrey Wright met as neighbors 20 years ago, when Pik was a young teenager. They went on to have other relationships, and mark the day they got together “for good” as June 10, 2005. They had three children together, and Pik had two older children. Three years ago, she was pregnant when cervical cancer was discovered. They decided to delay treatment until the baby was born. 

At age 33, Pik was in a residential hospice north of Milwaukee. When the doctor told her she didn't have much time left, she told Wright she wanted to marry him.

"We've been through a lot together," Pik told Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "A lot."

The wedding came together in ten days. With the children in attendance, the couple got married on Sept. 28, 2013, a month after Pik moved to the hospice. The ceremony was held outside the hospital where the hospice is located, in the gazebo, next to a pond.

"Love is patient and kind," said one of the officiants, reading from 1 Corinthians. "It is not irritable. It bears all things. Hopes all things. Endures all things, even though tongues shall cease.”

Pik and Wright vowed to be true to each other for the rest of their lives.

Another hospice-facilitated wedding involved a couple in their 80s. In a San Diego Catholic Church a few years ago, this ceremony served a different purpose—to reaffirm a long life together and to repair their relationship with their religion before the woman died.

They had come to the United States as farm workers. They went to church, raised children who went to college, and now lived comfortably, but there was a missing spiritual piece. All those years earlier, they had been married by a justice of the peace, not in the church, and it bothered them.

Their faith clearly meant a lot to them. But when the hospice chaplain, a former priest, asked about their wedding, he picked up on sadness and longing. At first he wondered if they’d married outside the church because one of them had been divorced.

But it turned out that the husband believed that he could not be married in the Catholic Church because he had not been confirmed. As a teenager, when others his age received the confirmation sacrament, he was out working the fields. As his wife lay dying, she still felt they’d done something wrong. They had no idea how easy it would be to fix.

The hospice chaplain arranged for a “convalidation” of their marriage, officially recognized by the church. Hospice staff worked with the church to perform a ceremony before more than 100 guests. There were ribbons on the pews and all the men wore suits. The bride wore a beautiful white wedding dress. She was on oxygen but walked down the aisle with her husband—and a walker.

In both cases, hospice was the key in finding hope for the patients and life-affirming memories for the bereaved. As distinguished surgeon Sherwin Nuland writes in How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, hope is not just about cure or remission, but “that one final success may yet be achieved whose promise vanquishes the immediacy of suffering and sorrow.”

Posted by Sheila Himmel