Coping with a Spouse’s Terminal Illness

Midori Verity

This episode is close to my heart. I interviewed my long-time friend, Brian Burke. His wife, Kate, and I were incredibly close. She died on Valentine’s Day 2013, after a nine-year battle with brain cancer. This is Brian’s story of being the caretaker and spouse of a dying mother and wife. The positive and healthy approach the family maintained, from the diagnosis until the end, is not only remarkable but uplifting. Kate left behind two wonderful children, Riley, and Colin. This is not a sad story of coping with death, but an inspiring lesson in how to face terminal illness.

Do you know someone who profoundly changed your outlook on life? They subconsciously altered your mindset, approach to the world, or your core values? My dear friend, Kate, was that person in my life. Here’s her inspirational story and the lasting imprint she left on my soul.

I remember glancing at my friend Brian during our kid’s end of year swim party. He sat quietly, with a distant look on his face. This was quite uncharacteristic of him. When Brian entered a space, you heard his laughter and booming voice, above all other noise. Days before, his wife, Kate, had been in a car accident, due to passing out, as she drove. Brian had just discovered the cause of her incident, which abruptly changed the entire family’s future. Kate had been diagnosed with a GBM brain tumor. Her life expectancy was one to three years.


The approach the family adopted in dealing with their new reality was one of clarity. They focused their priorities on family, happiness, and making positive memories. Life’s other crap was given no space.


They developed an unspoken family mantra. I broke it down into three categories:


1. Perspective
They adopted a big picture mindset. If a particular situation or challenge didn’t affect the outcome of their family or close relationships, it was given little energy. Occurrences that previously felt significant were now judged with a new barometer.


2. No fear. Live life to the fullest!
They traveled, danced, sang, and were ‘all in’ for any activity or event. I remember Kate went on every rollercoaster at Six-Flags, despite her diagnosis. Unfortunately, she had vertigo for a few months after but seemed to have no regrets.

Their son, Colin, is always the first for any dare. Most recently he took the stage in Southern California, to dance in partnership with a man who was barely dressed, and most certainly enjoying mind-altering substances. We were blinded by tears of laughter as we attempted to videotape his awkward moves.

The fear of embarrassment just seemed to evade them all.


3. Make fabulous memories
It was always a joy to be around the Burke family. There was laughter, jokes, and fun times. Although Kate was terminally ill, they focused on creating positive times, not focusing on sadness or fear.


Kate broke the odds and survived for nine years, after her diagnosis. There were many challenging periods, especially the last year of her life. Brian stuck by her with 100% dedication, having to travel three to four hours every day to be with her at the hospital, and taking care of the ugliest of moments in cancer’s heinous consumption.


I now view life from a mountaintop. I reframe problems into questions knowing that all questions have an answer. Issues are judged based on the significant outcome it will have for myself and those I care about. If it’s not going to negatively affect us, in the long run, I don’t give it much energy. I ask myself, ‘how serious is this situation, really’?


I treat my marriage with greater respect and consistently think of that for which I am grateful. Although I wholeheartedly miss Kate, her impact on who I have become will forever be remembered.



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