One In Sickness, One In Health: Why Deathbed Marriages Endure

by Abby Ellin


During the six years that Kay Haskins and Dan Brigham were in a serious relationship, marriage came up only occasionally. Neither one was ready at the same time, and in 2004 they broke up. But in February 2008, Haskins and Brigham reconnected, and fell right back in love. He then told her the grim news—his prostate cancer, diagnosed in 2001, had returned. This time, marriage became the priority. They got engaged two months later, and planned for a May 2009 wedding.

By early spring of this year, it was clear that Brigham was not going to last much longer. Still, Haskins, 54, was determined to give her fiancé–and herself—their last wish as a couple: to be married.
On Thursday, April 16, soon after Brigham, 65, slipped into a coma, an ordained chaplain at the hospice performed a nonbinding ceremony, uniting Brigham and Haskins as man and wife.

"Deathbed marriages"—unions that occur when one party is terminally ill, if not actually on his or her deathbed—have made some very public appearances as of late. The writer Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story (Dial Press, 1997), married her longtime boyfriend a few weeks before she died of lung cancer in June 2002. British reality-TV star Jade Goody—battling cervical cancer, bald from chemotherapy, and barely able to stand—married her boyfriend of four years, Jack Tweed, on Feb. 22. She died one month later.

The most famous recent deathbed marriage was not a marriage at all, but an accepted proposal. Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal were never married before she passed away last month. But, as O’Neal told Barbara Walters in late June, he had repeatedly asked Fawcett to marry him numerous times. Only shortly before her death did she agree—after nearly 30 years and one child together—to be his bride.

Similar to soldiers tying the knot before shipping off to war, a terminal illness may hasten hazy plans for pairs who see marriage in their distant future. But why do some couples—especially those who had been together for so long, whose lives were so clearly entwined, and who had shown no real desire to “make it official”—want to get married when life is almost over? Is it about making something "right" in the eyes of God or society? Is it because people are, ultimately, more traditional than they realize, especially when death comes knocking?

Of course, “till death do us part” has a different meaning when your prospective spouse is in a hospice. An end-of-life marriage allows one to have all the spiritual and cultural significance of being married without the 20-, 30-, or 40-year arguments about whose turn it is to take out the garbage.

“It takes some of the pressure off because you will not have to live up to the expectations of what it's like to be married on a day-to-day basis,” says Leslie Seppinni, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.

 Planning a wedding also gives the terminally ill something to look forward to: a little bit of hope and wonder in what is otherwise the grimmest hurry-up-and-wait scenario possible.

“When you’re dying, there’s not a lot to do,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist in Wexford, Pa. “You’re just kind of there and taking your pain meds.” Having plans and goals, no matter how slight, can often help improve patients' moods and, sometimes, their prognosis. A deathbed marriage may also provide closure; one last grand romantic gesture for the person who’s been by their side as an illness progressed. “There’s also a lot of guilt [on the part of terminally ill patients] that they’re leaving this person, so this is something they can do that’s positive for their partner,” says Lombardo.



Rabbi Irwin Kula, author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (Hyperion, September 2006), says marriage has the perception of adding an extra authenticity to an already committed relationship. He performed a hospital ceremony about 12 years ago with a couple in their late 30s who had been together for about six years. The bride was dying of cancer. “When death is at the door, we’re more serious,” he says. “If you happen to be in a relationship and someone’s going to die, you want to somehow make it more real. In this culture making something more real turns into marriage.”



The rabbi hit the nail on the mezuza. Most Western cultures with high rates of cohabitation don’t treat marriage with the same deference as we Americans do. In Scandinavia, for example, couples routinely build lives and families without a formal marriage. In those cultures, there’s even a word for the cohabiting partner: sambo, in Sweden; avoliitto in Finland. The union is accepted as meaningful and quite real.



That’s hardly the case in America. Never mind that a 2007 Census report showed that 6.4 million couples in the United States live together in unwedded bliss. In this country, although individuals may forge committed relationships outside of marriage, the rest of society doesn't really respect them as equal, legally or emotionally, to their married counterparts. “For many couples, the deathbed marriage is a way of claiming that respect,” says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash. She says some might see marriage as a capitulation to the way society views its importance, or as a final act of commitment, "just in case." “Either way, it's a sign of the immense symbolic importance marriage has in our society,” she says. “It’s this significance, more than any legal benefits, that drives so many gays and lesbians to say civil unions aren’t enough.”

Kay Haskins and Dan Brigham’s unofficial wedding offered them no legal protection or rights (indeed, an official marriage would have saddled his new bride with a mountain of medical debt): he was in a coma, his vows given by a surrogate. Still, despite the symbolic ceremony, Haskins often introduces herself as Kay Brigham, and does plan to officially change her name.

“This was just an outward manifestation of something that he and I already felt,” says Haskins. "We really didn’t need paper or a ceremony or words; we already were committed. But I feel better for being married. I wanted to have his name; I wanted to be his wife. I believe in the Cinderella story.”

And maybe that’s the bottom line: We all want to believe in something. And in a world where nothing’s predictable, maybe love really is all there is. And for better or for worse, till death do us part, marriage is the way we express it.

 

Abby Ellin is the author of Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help. (PublicAffairs, 2005)
Visit her at www.abbyellin.com