In 2018, when Pat Miles’ husband Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the only thing that the former television news anchor could think about was what was happening in the present moment.
“It was all I could do just to put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “I didn’t have space in my brain for anything else.”
Because Zimmerman was facing a terminal diagnosis, it likely would have been practical for the couple to sit down and discuss the ins and outs of his will or the details of their financial affairs. Instead, Miles said, they were swimming in a sea of overwhelming anxiety.
“We were pretty much in denial,” she recalled. “Even though I knew this disease was probably going to kill him I didn’t think it was going to kill him in three months. I was hoping for three years. We were doing treatment. He was getting chemo, but that was making him even sicker.”
Until just months before his death 2019 at age 72, Zimmerman was a healthy, vigorous man. A successful attorney, he had a will and estate plan in place. But, years earlier, when he’d asked Miles to meet their lawyer to discuss the details, she’d dragged her heels.
Maybe it was driven by fear, but whenever the topic of planning for a life without her husband came up, Miles said, “My eyes used to roll back in my head. For me it was worse than getting a tooth pulled.”
She’d also willingly let her husband take over their financial affairs. “A lot of women turn financial stuff over to their husbands,” Miles said. “I’m guilty of that. Bucky was an attorney. I figured he would take care of everything.” But after Zimmerman’s death, Miles discovered that their financial footing was built more on sand than solid rock.
“It turns out he was like the plumber that didn’t want to fix his own leak,” she said. “We had leaks everywhere.”
This realization that, rather than having time to grieve and recover, she would need to spend the first weeks and months after her husband’s death meeting with probate attorneys and bankers to sort out her financial life, set Miles off on a desperate search for helpful resources for the recently widowed.
“I found there were a lot of supportive books out there written for widows about the emotional experience of losing a husband or for widowers about losing their wife, but I didn’t find a lot of advice about how to deal with the practical, day-to-day aspects of all of this,” she said.
This felt like adding insult to injury. She was enveloped in what she’s come to call “the grim fog of grief.” It was a time, Miles explained, when “you think you are going crazy. You aren’t functioning normally. You don’t remember things. You can’t recall details. You can’t concentrate.” But Miles needed to turn those feelings off and focus on more practical matters: “I was making these really important decisions that were going to have a big impact on me down the line.”
She soon learned that she wasn’t the only widow who’d been forced to turn away from her grief to focus on more practical matters. Too often, Miles said, couples avoid talking about difficult or painful topics — and that reality can end up making life hard for a surviving spouse. This realization inspired Miles, in partnership with co-author Suzanne Watson, to write a book that she hoped could help others avoid having to experience the same struggles.
To do that, Miles interviewed widows from around the country and compiled their experience and wisdom into “Before All is Said and Done: Practical Advice on Living and Dying Well,” the book she wishes she’d had in the days following Zimmerman’s death.
This approach of gleaning advice from others came naturally to Miles. She could’ve written a book focused on her own experience, she said, but she knew she was more interested in hearing from others. Gathering other people’s stories, Miles said, “is what I do. It’s what I understand. It’s what I did all my life. I interviewed people and talked to them about their stories. It seems to be a natural fit, so that’s the way I wrote my book.”
Coming out of the fog
Though Zimmerman died three years ago, Miles said that there are days when her grief still feels fresh. It is a lingering emotion, she explained: “It gets different, but it does not go away. I have come to understand that. When people tell you, ‘Get over it. It will get better,’ that’s not very helpful. It actually just gets different. I’m not sure that grief ever gets better.”
One of the things Miles noticed first after Zimmerman died was a feeling of being alone even on the busiest days. “I’m fortunate,” she said. “I have a lot of friends, but when you are a widow, when you get up in the morning there is no one to talk to and when you go to bed at night there is no one to talk to.” While she was good at filling up her days with activities, the beginning and end of every day felt like a cold reminder: “I always thought I was pretty independent, but to be older and alone is not fabulous, I will tell you that.”
Miles has always felt a need to keep herself busy, but during the three short months between her husband’s cancer diagnosis and his death she wishes that she would have given herself up to the process. Instead, she occupied her mind by scurrying around, scheduling appointments with the doctor and arranging his care.
“It is an extraordinary time when someone dies,” Miles said. “You try to make it ordinary by doing ordinary things — and then you end up losing the extraordinary part of the whole process.”
Zimmerman asked her to slow down, but she had a hard time listening. “I remember Bucky saying to me, ‘I need you not to be so busy,’” Miles said. “I realize now that I was trying to keep myself busy so I didn’t have to think about what was happening to us. One of my biggest regrets was how I didn’t know that I should just slow down, accept what was happening and be there.”
When Miles was working on her book, one of the widows she interviewed talked about turning to a death doula, or a professional trained to help people through the dying process, for support during her husband’s final days.
In the final weeks of Zimmerman’s life, one of Miles’ two daughters came to visit them in their home in Arizona. “She pulled me aside and said, ‘Mom, have you considered talking to a death doula?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that is. Go away. I don’t want to talk about it.’” Later, after she’d talked to other widows who told her about their experiences working with death doulas, Miles told her daughter that she wished she had taken her advice.
“She said,” Miles recalled, “‘I knew you were fighting a war you couldn’t win. Why not have someone to help you come to some acceptance about what’s going on?’ Almost more than anything I wished we would’ve done that. There was so much left unsaid and undone.”
Now that her book is published, Miles, 72, said that she is focusing on taking the next steps in her grief journey. While she knows she will never completely get over losing her beloved husband, she understands that she now needs to give the sudden loss a different kind of focus.
“I can remember talking to a therapist,” Miles said. “She told me, ‘There are people who, 10 years after a loss, are still stuck.’ There are still days that I break down crying, asking myself, ‘What is going wrong with me?’” Sometimes she wonders if all of her work has just been yet another distraction.
“Maybe I haven’t really dealt with it,” she said. “I threw myself into the first year dealing with the financial problems and then the next two years with the book. I’m hoping this is my year to deal with myself.”