Villa Marie Claire

Fifer Woods - Talking, Sharing and Grieving

Dave and Fifer Woods had made their plans. After 42 years of marriage, they agreed that when Dave's eye cancer could no longer be treated, he would spend his last days at home, with his wife and beloved pets by his side.

But that plan wasn't in place very long. Dave wanted to "do something with his cancer and help others" and ultimately realized he wanted to volunteer at the residential hospice, Villa Marie Claire. He spent time with patients, getting them a glass of water, sharing personal stories and listening to them reminisce. But what probably most helped him relate was his own fight with a terminal illness.

At the time, Dave explained, "I had the credibility to share with hurting people about their tough battles and an obligation to do what I could to help them face the end of their lives with hope, peace and even contentment. And in doing that, I've been blessed too. I've been inspired and encouraged by Villa's residents."

Soon after he started speaking with patients and getting to know the staff, he changed his mind about his end-of-life care. He wanted to be at the Villa during the final stage of his cancer journey.

"Because we had talked about it - initially I was at peace knowing Dave was going to pass in our house," Fifer said, from the lounge at the Villa. "That's where my mindset was - he'd be in our house, with our little kitty cats that he loved and would bring him comfort. But when he came to the Villa, he just knew this was where he wanted to pass. He decided it would be better for me and my children if he was to be taken care of here instead of at home."

Dave's faith was strong and he took comfort knowing what waited for him after his death. Yet during his five-year battle with choroidal melanoma he spent a lot of time thinking about his family. A year before he passed, he spoke about changing his decision on his end-of-life care.

"I don't want Fifer to have to care for me physically, the emotional toll will be tough enough," Dave said. "My wife is taking some time to come to terms with it but I believe it will be the best thing for everyone."

Ultimately, Fifer agreed with his decision.

"When I first pulled into the parking lot here, I was a little uncomfortable," Fifer said. "But as soon as I came through these doors, I was at peace. I understand why he wanted to be here. The setting - it's almost sacred and it's just incredible care and love from the people who work here. And his care was all we could have hoped for. Dave was very comfortable as a patient and I'm glad this is where he spent his last days."

Getting on board with Dave's decision was part of the process that began as soon as Dave told Fifer about his disease. They instinctively knew they needed to be able to share their sorrow and grief, their fear and doubts. They needed to plough through discussions about treatments, clinical trials and his poor prognosis. It was difficult to begin.

"It's very uncomfortable at first," she said. "You just have to say, 'How are we going to do this? How are we going to talk about this?' and we had many tears. But we all learned, even my children, to be very honest. They would say they were having a hard time dealing with it all and Dave would ask them to tell him more about their feelings. They were able to share so much, and that was such a gift."

Nearly 18 months after Dave's passing, Fifer said she still feels him with her. She is learning to live with his absence, and credits the grief counseling and support group offered at the Villa with helping her learn that it's okay to not always be strong.

"People say to me that I'm doing well, and I am. But I learned I don't have to be. There are no 'shoulds.' Right now, I'm deciding whether to take off my rings. I asked other people in my group have they thought about it, do they want to. It's not about looking for another spouse. It's a mental process to say yes, I'm alone now and to accept it. Dying is a part of life so you have to learn to continue on because it's still part of your journey. The Villa is terrific at reaching out to people and helping them through this process."

Before he passed, Dave told his story. To read it, click here.