Bereaved Spouses/Partners, Grieving Children, Parent Loss, The Road Less Traveled

Twenty Years

by Dorothy Gillon

Editor’s Note: I met Dorothy, Charlie and their children in 1984 when our family relocated to Martin, TN. From the very beginning, I knew that the Gillons were a special family; warm, loving and caring. Although many miles separate Dorothy and I today, I am honored to share her story with you. Many hugs, my dear friend.

In MemoryWhen Peggy asked me to consider writing an article for her newsletter, I thought what do I have to say about grief that would be helpful to others. But after thinking about it for a while, I thought I have a lot to say about grief and how our family got through it—actually still getting through it. So bear with me as I give you some background about our life.

Charlie and I were married on August 13, 1972. We had a pretty wonderful marriage, easy most of the time, even with our moves to Micronesia; Carbondale, Illinois; Philadelphia, Mississippi (where our son Jamie was born in 1976) and finally to Martin, Tennessee (where our daughter Kathleen was born on our anniversary). We experienced loss along the way with both of our fathers dying very early in our life together and my Nana Dora a little later. We held each other when we cried and remembered our loved ones very often by reminiscing with stories.

Mr and Mrs Charlie Gillon
Mr and Mrs Charlie Gillon

But things changed in January 1993. Charlie’s mom, Lena, died on Christmas Eve, 1992. We were with our family at the wake and funeral and Charlie’s best friend, Bill, pulled me aside and said, “What the heck is wrong with Charlie?” Charlie had some health issues during 1992, but each time after seeing his doctor and taking some meds he seemed all right. More folks began to question his appearance, they said he looked gray and that he had lost weight. When you live with someone day in and day out you don’t always see the physical changes that are taking place.

When we returned from Massachusetts, we immediately made an appointment with Charlie’s doctor who ordered a CAT scan and other tests. We had the CAT scan first and the tech told us we wouldn’t need the other tests at that time. We went home and the doctor called us to his office immediately. We knew it wasn’t good news. The first diagnosis was renal cell carcinoma. You can live with one kidney but… After a week of testing in Memphis, twenty-one days in the hospital following surgery, we finally learned the correct diagnosis-malignant melanoma. Charlie’s was one of the rarest forms of melanoma: it attacked his internal organs – his right kidney, right adrenal gland and tumors on his vena cava.

My grieving process, unbeknownst to me, began the day we learned that Charlie was sick. One thing we did immediately was to sit our children down and tell them everything we knew. They wanted to be kept in the loop about every detail of their father’s cancer and his treatment. At the beginning, they were 14 and 17 so we felt they were old enough to understand as much as anyone can understand cancer. I became a very assertive person, demanding answers from doctors and nurses, especially when we were making trips to Memphis for chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. Chemo began in March of 1993 and went on through May of 1994. Things seemed to be ok, but in July we learned the tumors had returned to the site and also to his liver and lungs. It was a huge blow to us and to Charlie’s oncologist who had never treated anyone as young as Charlie and never anyone with malignant melanoma. The doctor offered Charlie some options, one of which was to go to the National Institute of Health in Baltimore for 30 days of chemo, but Charlie said no. He was going to go home and live out whatever time he had left with dignity and peace.

Dorothy, Charlie, Kathleen and Jamie
Dorothy, Charlie, Kathleen and Jamie

I contacted Hospice after that July visit and they became my lifeline. At first, our nurse and social worker came once a week to check Charlie’s vitals. As soon as they finished, he would go back to work. He really didn’t want to talk about his cancer. To him it was a fact of life. He had cancer. Enough said. He told me if I needed to talk about it with our Hospice team that was all well and good, but not to expect him to sit there and talk. I, on the other hand, I had to talk about it with someone and Hospice was wonderful.

To say he was an amazing man is an understatement. The only thing he asked of his family was to die at home with the three of us with him. He continued to work, he was the Assistant Director of the Intensive English Program at The University of Tennessee at Martin. He loved his work, his staff and his students. He worked through the first few weeks of September, some full days, some half days and then he realized that his time was coming to an end. Hospice then came every day until his last.

On October 14, 1994, Charlie closed his eyes for the last time with Jamie, Kathleen, his sister, Mary Lou and myself around his hospital bed in our bedroom saying our good-byes. It was the hardest and the most amazing thing I have ever done – caring for my beloved husband of 22 years and 2 months.

Going through this was not easy, but we had faith and wonderful friends, like Peggy Sweeney. After was not so easy. Everyone grieves in their own way. I didn’t cook for about a year and a half. I couldn’t make the food that were Charlie’s favorites. I went to work two weeks after Charlie died. Kathleen went to the cemetery every day to do her homework. Jamie went back to his university classes.

I wanted them to express their feelings out loud to me or to anyone who would listen. They balked, we fought, and we cried and tried to get through it. It was torture. We loved one another, but we didn’t really like each other much at times. Kathleen went into counseling and although the woman was lovely, Kathleen needed someone much younger to connect with. She only went a few times.

I think it took me a long time to realize that I hadn’t really gone through the grieving process myself. When you have kids you think you have to be sure that they are ok and you forget about yourself. That’s just a fact of life, whether you experience the death of a loved one or not. Particularly as mothers we tend to take care of everyone else before ourselves. So, I started to journal, instead of just yelling at Charlie – which I still do from time to time – and found it helpful. I talked with two friends extensively who let me talk without ever judging me or urging me “to get on with my life”. I’d say “with time” everyday life got easier but those important dates in our lives, even to this day, make me sad and happy at the same time.

Gillon collage

Our lives have changed forever! We got through the “firsts” – Thanksgiving in Massachusetts at a Memorial Mass with family and friends who couldn’t make it to Tennessee for the funeral. Reliving it all over again. Christmas at home, the three of us. Birthdays, anniversaries, Kathleen leaving for college in Memphis, Jamie leaving for Texas to work at Dell, all of these events began to strengthen us. And then came Jamie and Teresa’s wedding in 2003 and then the birth of our three precious grandchildren and lastly, Kathleen and Michael’s wedding last July. These major events were particularly hard because I was alone. Was I lonely, yes and no. I was surrounded by my wonderful family and dear friends (who have become my family in Martin) and they made sure I always knew they were there to support me in whatever ways needed. Even though Charlie wasn’t with us physically on these occasions, I know in my heart and soul he was with us in spirit.

I don’t know if this will be helpful to anyone but it has helped me put it down on paper. Remembering is painful, but what I know implicitly is that I am a very lucky woman. Charlie and I had 20 years and 2 months together, two wonderful children and a lifetime of memories!

It is hard to believe that Charlie died twenty years ago, at noon, on October 14, 2014.

About the Author: Dorothy Gillon has been the Public Occasions Coordinator at the University of Tennessee at Martin since 1994. Primarily, she coordinates events for Chancellor Tom Rakes, but there are times when she assists other departments on campus. Dorothy especially enjoys working with the WestStar Leadership Programs because she gets to meet such interesting people, whether they are middle school students, juniors or seniors in high school, mayors, administrators, doctors or lawyers.

Planning meals and events from the very simple to the sublime keeps her quite busy. Dorothy works with the Sodexo food service almost every day planning menus. To say her work changes daily is an understatement.

Dorothy also enjoys being on two Board of Directors; United Way and We Care Ministries. United Way helps organizations that rely on donations to do their good works and We Care helps those who sometimes do not have the means to pay an electrical bill, rent or buy food. We Care also has a store where anyone can buy gently used clothing, shoes, household goods or furniture.


Eulogy at the Funeral Mass for Charlie Gillon
by John Eisterhold, PhD
University of Tennessee, Martin

Thanks for this opportunity to say a few words about Charlie Gillon.  And, if Charlie could speak himself today, he’d surely have a few choice words to say about this weather which has turned West Tennessee into an Irish bog!

While these remarks are certainly for the many friends who have traveled so far, and for the grieving friends that he had in the University and community, the remarks are primarily intended for the family which he loved so much, and for the International Programs staff, which loved him so much. And, while the thoughts may be clumsily expressed, I know that you will accept them as coming from the heart.

The great wartime leader of Britain, Winston Churchill, once defined courage simply but elegantly as “Grace Under Pressure.” How well those words seemed to describe Charlie for those of us who lived and worked with him these past two years, and observed how he masked his pain, maintained his resolve to carry on with family and professional duties, and even insisted in talking about the future rather than reflecting upon a painful present. We could only marvel at his stamina, his courage and his continuing concern for others. It was his way – a conscious choice on his part to not surrender to pain or depression. He was an incredibly brave gentleman.

His personal life, his value system, and his professionalism were an inspiration to all of us who were privileged to spend working years with him. I may have been his dean, but in dealing with people he was often my mentor. He taught us all about respect for others and to always look for the best in people. When I hear others in the University often say that our office seems like such a family, I know that Charlie played a huge role in helping to forge that feeling.

To Charlie’s real family – to Dorothy, Jamie and Kathleen, I can only comfort you by telling you that this was a husband and father who put family before ego. Once, many years ago, Charlie was offered a promotion which carried a substantial pay raise. To my surprise, he turned it down, simply saying that it was more important to him to be able to spend time with the family he loved. I knew then what a rare person he was.

To Jamie and Kathleen, I can tell you that on long Pacific flights, he would often bore me to sleep with endless stories of how smart you were and how proud he was of you! Even when he was desperately ill, and we would sometimes take long, slow walks through the academic quadrangle together, his thoughts and words focused not on himself, but on the wife he loved and  admired so much, and the children who meant so much to him. His love for you was so strong, and his example so good that I know it will assist you all your lives.

If I may, I’d like to close by amending Winston Churchill’s famous phrase just a bit. To all of us who knew him, Charlie’s final battle demonstrated incredible courage under the most extraordinary pressure. And, that is a wonderful legacy to leave to his friends and his family.

Thank you.


Loving Hugs: Be Present for Those with an Incurable Illness
by Peggy Sweeney

Editor’s Note: During the time that Charlie was ill, I was writing articles about loss and coping with grief for our local newspaper. Several months before Charlie’s death, I wanted to not only help people understand that a terminal illness, although devastating and difficult to accept, can offer a time of healing and a chance to make amends for both the dying and the survivors. I also wanted to respect his need for privacy, but wanted to tell him one more time how much I would miss him. I wanted the “last” of everything that I didn’t get when my father died of a sudden heart attack many years before. The LAST goodbye. The LAST I will miss you. The LAST I love you.

My friend has cancer, and is dying.

Our first reaction to news of this nature is usually disbelief. The medical test results are in error or someone, namely the doctor, has surely made a terrible mistake. It is a bad dream, we will wake up and realize those words were never spoken. It’s a cruel joke, we will get even with whomever started the rumor.

But slowly, over a period of time, we come to grips with reality and accept that this friend or family member that we love does have an incurable illness, and their time with us is limited.

We struggle to do and say what is right. We often feel helpless. I encourage you to give your loved ones the “gift of presence”. Be present in their lives to do what needs to be done. Offer to drive them to doctor visits or treatment appointments. Help with chores around the house that they may be unable to do. Give assistance to the caregivers who are attending to the needs of those who are sick, while trying to cope with the inevitable.

Those who are terminally ill may want to make preparations for their funeral or get their affairs in order. Do not shy away from them if they ask for your help. Allow them to tell you what is on their mind and in their heart. Give flowers or tapes of soothing music. Give hugs. Verbalize your thoughts and feelings with them. It’s okay to say how you really feel inside – sad, angry, scared. But share the good stuff too. Tell them how important they are to you and how very much they will be missed. It’s okay to cry.

My friend is a very special person. We shared a few sad times together, but many, many happy ones. He has taught me to find goodness in even the worst of situations. When I see his big grin and sparkling eyes I can’t help but feel good about life.

I think of my friend often these days. It is important to me that he knows how much I value our friendship. How many wonderful things I have learned about myself through my association with him. He has touched many lives and shared a piece of love with all.

Dearest friend, I’m glad that our lives have touched. I wish you peace and hugs all the days of your life. I love you.