Finding Peace After a Death from Chronic Illness

Grieving a Death from Chronic Illness

While everyone grieves differently, experts say grieving the death of someone with a chronic illness is different than the acute grief associated with an unexpected and sudden death. In essence, an individual with a loved one who has died after a long, chronic illness began the grieving process long before the death itself.

That’s the kind of grief Dean Hildreth of Osceola is navigating.

Married for nearly 35 years, Dean’s wife Marti endured complications of a childhood accident for the rest of her life. “When she was 9, she was hit by a school bus as she was riding her bike,” says Dean. “She had a lot of trauma to her back and hips, and her pain gradually got worse every year.”

Nine months after being diagnosed with COVID in 2022, Marti suddenly developed heart problems. After visiting several doctors, a physician in Iowa City determined that although she wasn’t aware at the time, Marti had been ill with rheumatic fever as a child. That illness damaged her heart valves, and after COVID, the conditioned worsened. She passed away January 9, 2023, at the age of 53.

In the final months of her life, the EveryStep Hospice team in Osceola provided care for Marti in her home. During that time, Dean says he felt supported as well. Though Dean had never considered himself a caregiver, the EveryStep Hospice team reminded him that he had been shouldering a lot of responsibility for decades. “They told me I had been the caregiver for 31 years out of our 34 years of marriage, because her pain issues got worse after having our first and second daughters. I said I didn’t really see myself as Marti’s caregiver, but they said the way hospice views it, I was.”

About a month after Marti’s death, Dean noticed his grief was not getting better. “I didn’t realize losing a spouse would be so much different than a parent,” says Dean, who felt disconnected because his routine of caring for Marti was gone. He decided he would attend one of EveryStep Hospice’s eight-week grief support groups in Creston. “I don’t know that you can say you enjoy going to it, but it was good. I met some met new people and a lot of us still keep in contact,” says Dean, who also attends a monthly grief support group in Osceola.  

“Everybody deals with stuff differently, everybody’s circumstances are different and it’s okay — whatever you feel is okay,” says Dean. He encourages anyone who has lost a loved one to seek out EveryStep Grief & Loss Services. He thinks it’s especially important for men, since they often are hesitant to ask for help. He decided to share his story because of the comfort he found through the grief support groups. “I feel like I’m paying them back a little for everything they’ve done for me.”

Grief support groups like the one Dean attends are hosted at EveryStep Hospice locations in seven Iowa communities and at the EveryStep Grief & Loss Services office (home of Amanda the Panda) in West Des Moines. EveryStep Hospice bereavement counselors are available to meet with families or visit by phone. These services are available to anyone, at no cost. The counselor can provide families with information or simply lend a friendly ear.

If you or someone you know is struggling to find the support they need, please contact EveryStep at 515-558-9946 or complete the commitment-free, confidential "Find Care" form. EveryStep staff will follow up with a phone call to answer your questions and provide assistance.