Coping With Juanita’s Passing

By E. Jeffrey Hill

In 2001 everything looked good for our family—our nine children (ages 4 to 23) were all doing well, I loved my job as a university professor, the house was paid for, and we had good health. It would be clear sailing to retirement in just 15 years.  Or so we thought! Then my wife Juanita noticed a lump in her breast.  The doctor’s diagnosis was devastating—the tumor was 10 cm and there was only a 50 percent chance for long-term survival.  Our whole world changed overnight!

 Life is Hard

Hill - 2004-Fam pict JR Jr

Juanita started chemotherapy and then had to deal with all the aftereffects—nausea, fatigue, and baldness.  During this time she could have wallowed in self-pity, but she chose to focus on what she could do, not on what she couldn’t.  She would say, “Isn’t it great that I now have the time to get the family photo albums up to date.”

She had two rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and then radiation. In June 2002 the doctor said the cancer was officially in remission.  We thanked the Lord and celebrated, but our celebration was short-lived—early in 2004 the cancer showed up in her lungs. In somber tones our doctor told us there was no possible cure. We felt betrayed and hopeless. God could heal her, so why wouldn’t He?

The aggressive cancer took its toll.  Juanita lost weight rapidly, and even the smallest exertion left her struggling for breath. One by one each of her mortal capabilities was taken away.  For some reason it was not God’s will for Juanita to live much longer.

 But We Can Do Hard Things

I received a clear spiritual impression that we should stop focusing our faith on a physical miracle and focus instead on learning what we could in the short time she had left.  So we went to work. Juanita wrote her feelings about God and we printed and laminated them, along with her picture, as scripture bookmarks for our children. She wrote letters to each of the children, expressing appreciation and offering encouragement and advice. We recorded Juanita singing lullabies for future grandchildren. We recorded messages for special occasions, such as marriage and childbirth, and Juanita crocheted baby blankets for future grandchildren. Staying busy with positive, meaningful activities gave us great comfort.

Hill - 2005- Immediate Family

Near the end hospice provided wonderful help, teaching us how to make end-of-life care a positive experience and how to best care for Juanita during her last days. Our children were at her side as she died, and each was able to share their tender feelings. She was alert and talked with us until about 10 minutes before passing. I told her, “I love you,” and she responded in Spanish, “Lo mismo,” which means “Same to you.” Those were her last words. Her passing was sweet.

 

As we made funeral plans, we decided to celebrate her life and not focus on the pain of our loss. Instead of a mortuary viewing, we turned our home into the Juanita Hill Memorial Museum.  In each room we created a poster board with a carefully lettered description of the service Juanita provided there.  We laid out everyday artifacts, such as clothes, books, sheet music, and a sewing machine, and each child served as a room “tour guide” for those who came to pay their respects.  In the last room a video showed Juanita and the children preparing a Saturday meal together. This “celebration” helped our family start to heal.

 

As the first anniversary of Juanita’s death loomed, no one wanted to remember the pain of her death.  Instead, we decided to commemorate something from her life that would make us smile. Because she loved reading a good book and eating ice cream together, we went to the grocery store where each child got their favorite ice cream.  Then we went to the cemetery and slowly ate our frozen delight while reading  A Wrinkle in Time, one of her favorites.  As the wind blew and tousled the children’s hair, Juanita seemed so very close.

Several years have now passed. I have remarried and we are blending a family with 12 children.  Yet there are times when we all feel her so close. In those moments it seems inconceivable that death is the end.  In our hearts we know she continues to live on, but just in a different sphere. And we remember her with a warm place in our hearts, receiving comfort from knowing that families can be together forever.

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One thought on “Coping With Juanita’s Passing

  1. Penny Dunaway says:

    Thank you. I loved Juanita so much. Her life was an inspiration to all that knew her. She had experienced her first phase of cancer before I knew her. We became friends at a stake aerobics class. I asked one day how she could face her difficult situation each day. She said, I don’t think about tomorrow, just today. I miss her and her bright smile and her love for so many things in this life. She was an amazing mother. I know this because I knew her children, especially the girls. I hope you are all doing well and happy. Juanita would have wanted that. Love to you all! Penny Dunaway

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