At the end of February last year, Bernard Turner, a 68-year-old former gamekeeper from Bodenham, Herefordshire, died of pneumonia.
He had lived with multiple sclerosis for eight years, bedbound for five. Luckily – if anything still was lucky – he had his wife, Val, who not only loved him enough to be his full-time carer, but was also an experienced operating theatre nurse, then manager, who knew her way around patient care, tells The Guardian.
They’d been married for 44 years by the time Bernard died, with Val beside him. He had never known that she was dying, too.
Two years earlier, Val had discovered a lump in her breast and guessed the worst. She had already seen her sister die of breast cancer, and knew that if she entered the world of scans and surgery and side-effects, she would have to stop caring for her husband – to say nothing of the sorrow, guilt and anger it might cause.
So she did nothing, and the lump grew. She was 66 when Bernard died, and her own health fell apart more or less immediately afterwards. When the truth could no longer be hidden, she told it to her already grieving daughters, Julie and Clare.
Ten days later, on 17 April 2015, Val Turner died, not two months after her husband.
And this is not an isolated case.
“When author and screen-writer/director Nora Ephron died of leukaemia, many of her fans were shaken; we didn’t even know she was sick,” said Ruth Livingston PhD.
“Maybe, we thought, she just didn’t want the public to know that she was so direly ill. But, it turns out, even some of those closest to her were likewise in the dark,” said Ruth.
“Ephron, who once wrote, “there are no secrets” (About My Neck) went about her business up until the final hospitalisation when then, only her immediate family and the most intimate friends knew she was dying.
“In a moving New York Magazine meditation and tribute to Ephron, Frank Rich quotes Meryl Streep from the memorial service: “We’ve all been ambushed….she really did catch us napping…And it’s really stupid to be mad at someone who died, but somehow I’ve managed it.””
“Streep went on to say that she was honoured and privileged to be on the list of chosen speakers, despite feeling “pissed off”, ” said Ruth.
This begs the question: When you’re dying, how selfish do you get to be?
Some people think that not telling the family about a terminal illness is a selfless thing to do. For example, Val’s daughters Julie Turner and Clare Crosby have since paid tribute to their ‘brave’ mother saying, “Mum chose to spend her time caring for my dad rather than having treatment for her illness. It was a very brave decision not to tell anyone.”
But others feel that keeping a terminal illness a secret is taking away an opportunity for closure for family and loved ones.
Redditor Holovoid says that telling a family member about a terminal illness is not a burden but an opportunity to spend more time together or to work things out.
He said, “My father was diagnosed with Stage IV colon, lung, pancreatic, and bone cancer in May 2010. He was given 2 months to live. He told me the day he found out.”
“The next 7 months were pretty much hell. He got a lot better through chemo but took a nosedive around Thanksgiving and died just before Christmas.
“Despite all the heartache and pain those 7 months caused, I’m glad I had them.
“He taught me more than I can remember in those short months. We spoke more often than we ever had prior to that.
“We joked, laughed, shared a drink together, things that we’d not done a ton prior to that.
“It wasn’t that we had a bad relationship – I loved my dad and we had some good times…we were just somewhat distant due to living apart for the first 12 years of my life,” said Holovoid.