True Story: My husband died of a brain tumor at 36

husband brain tumor

Can you imagine being 29 and getting a call that your totally healthy boyfriend just had a seizure at work? And then finding out that he had a brain tumor? Today, my friend Nora is sharing the story of her life with Aaron. I know you’re going to love her writing. Warning: you’ll probably laugh/cry your way through this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

I’m Nora! I’m a 30-ish-year-old human who is a writer, author, and a really, really slow runner.

How did you and Aaron discover that he had a tumor?

Welp, it was just a normal workday until Aaron had a seizure at his desk. Now, that is really serious, and yet, the two of us spent the whole day in the ER like, okay, now when do we get to go home? They ended up giving him an MRI, and the reason for the seizin (Aaron’s best joke) was a brain tumor. The brain tumor turned out to be cancer, and the cancer turned out to be very, very bad.

How did the two of you react to his diagnosis?

We reacted the way you tend to react to something unbelievable: like robots who have just gotten new programming. I think in humans it is called shock, but we were like, okay, now we will do some cancer things. And we did the cancer things — we did radiation and chemo and blood draws — but we also just made those fit into life. We got married, we had a baby, we went to see Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen live (not together, although, Dream Tour much?).

We had a really joyful marriage, even with this really terrible third wheel that we knew would murder Aaron in the end. Our normal was a little bizarre, but it was ours. And even though those were the hardest days of my life, I think they were also the happiest.

We had a really joyful marriage, even with this really terrible third wheel that we knew would murder Aaron in the end. Our normal was a little bizarre, but it was ours. And even though those were the hardest days of my life, I think they were also the happiest.

You also had a sweet little baby boy while Aaron was sick. Did Ralph understand what was happening?

Ralph was 22 months when his father died in our home. He crawled into bed with him that morning, kissed him and said “buh bye Papa.” Ralph spent the first ~2 years of his life in hospitals, being held by oncology nurses and crawling on oncology floors.

I think that children — especially babies — are incredibly perceptive, and that he knew from the moment we brought him home from the hospital, just a month after his father’s second brain surgery, that he was not the center of our world, that his babyhood was not going to be a normal one. He was also sweet and kind and patient, he loved sleeping with Aaron while he recovered from chemo.

husband brain tumor

At what point did you and Aaron decide to stop treatment?

Aaron entered hospice after three years of treatment, on November 11. Hospice is presented as a choice, but it isn’t really a choice when you know there is nothing left to do, and that things are only getting worse.

What has the last year like been like for you? 

The past year feel like it has been five seconds long, or a million years long. I think that the public part of Aaron’s death affected me more deeply than I thought it did, and gave me a sense that I had to be okay, I had to keep moving forward and smiling to fill some completely untrue expectation from a faceless, nameless other (let’s call it the Internet).

So, that’s what I did. I ran. I spent the year traveling with Ralph, running, working out, starting a non-profit, doing, making, going, keeping my brain and body humming so I wouldn’t be able to hear the screeching, wailing grief that was boiling inside of me.

In many ways, it feels like this year, the second without Aaron, is really the first, because it’s the one I’ve been the most present for, quiet for, and in tune with. And also, if time heals all wounds, why am I such a bloody mess?

Your story went viral and here in the Twin Cities tons of people ‘know’ you and recognize you. How does it feel to have strangers approach you and talk about your dead husband?

It’s really comforting — we all want to be able to talk about our dead people, and when people come up to me, they always tell me about their dead people, which I think is a really special honor.

In the last year, you also started Hot Young Widows Club. Tell us about that.

I mean, what a club. Such benefits. Like, you get to always make people uncomfortable in conversations, you can cry in public whenever you’d like…I could go on, but then I have to get into our fee structure, which is really non-negotiable and is one husband (or wife. Or partner of some kind. Just, a central romantic life figure must die. SORRY I DON’T MAKE THE RULES I JUST ENFORCE THEM).

It started almost as a joke, but part of sharing the story of your husband dying means that you get to know a lot of people who have been through that same loss, people who can’t speak to their friends about it because their well-meaning friends are like, sorry, my husband is alive, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

So, I turned it into a (secret) Facebook group. I printed mugs and totes and notebooks for us. And I made a thing, so if you need someone to get in touch with, hey, you know how to do it.

What’s one thing you learned from this that any of us could apply to our daily lives? 

Get. Insurance. And Life Insurance. And make a living will. And talk about death.

Thanks so much for sharing, Nora. If you guys liked this, you should pre-order her memoir It’s Okay To Laugh (Crying’s Cool Too). Do you have any questions for her?

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  1. Krystin

    What a bad ass woman. No questions here, but wow. So impressive.

  2. Lauren

    I read this and looked over to where my boyfriend is making dinner. I thought about what I would do if this happened to him and it literally made me choke up.

    I’m so sorry you had to go through this, but damn you’re an inspiration for holding it together the best you can.

  3. Carly

    I don’t usually comment, but wow. If I could get through my day to day with as much grace, strength and humour that Nora seems to radiate, I’d be very proud of myself. Thanks for sharing this post – I definitely laughed and choked up all at the same time.

  4. LBL

    My husband died young too. Unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Like yours, my second year of widowhood was worse than my first. I think what makes it so is that our husbands are still “alive” for us, in that we think of them every day, all the time. Others have moved on, are available less, and it’s not easy to ask for help. I felt like screaming nearly every day of year two: Hello? How are you going on with your regular life? Don’t you miss him every second, like I do? Your advice about insurance is excellent. I’d add one more piece: Don’t ask a widow, or anyone in deep grief, to “call me if there’s anything I can do.” We will never call you – we don’t know what we need, and it’s too much to think about. Instead, offer to pick up dinner on Tues, watch the kids for a couple hours on Sat, walk the dogs next week, whatever. Bring over a movie and leave it on the doorstep… literally, whatever. You may never receive a thank you but your kindness will be appreciated. Thanks for the article, Nora. Much love to you and your son.

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