Readers know writing helps me through tough times. It’s done the same for Peter Lichtenberg.
A clinical psychologist and professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University, Peter specializes in patients with geriatric issues. As a relatively young man, Peter dealt with issues of his own—the wrenching loss of two wives. The personal essay he wrote about the experience is worth reading for the literary references, the statistical information and—especially—the emotional insight.
Becky, Peter’s first wife, died of undiagnosed heart disease when she and her husband were 25. Susan died of breast cancer when she was 50 and Peter, 54. Both women, Peter says, “were everything to me: friend, colleague, lover, confidante.”
The chances of losing two wives by middle age? In the first case, less than 1%. In the second, less than 5%. Peter writes that he numbers among “the unlucky few in modern times” who’ve suffered bereavement as a young man and in middle age as well.
Crushed by both losses, Peter eventually dragged himself back to life. For anyone dealing with grief, the lessons he learned are valuable. Along with poetic descriptions of each marriage, he provides an honest look at the hostility with which his first in-laws treated him and the depression he suffered.
Peter’s first love, Becky Classen from St. Louis, enjoyed everything “from auto mechanics to the classics.” They married and moved to Indiana where Peter continued grad school at Purdue and Becky planned to start med school. “We relished every minute of our new life together, with no inkling of how short that life would be.”
2 ½ years.
Several difficult years later, Peter says, “Out of the blue, I got a call.” A scheduled speaker at a San Francisco conference was ill. Could Peter take his place? While in California, he had dinner with Susan MacNeill, a past student. They became friends.
The next year, Susan was recruited by the hospital for which Peter worked. They began hiking together, then dating. After a few months, Peter told Susan he was ready to put away Becky’s pictures. He was ready for Susan’s and his pictures to adorn his desk.
“I felt as if Becky had handed me to Susan and given her blessing to our life together.”
13 years after Becky died, Peter and Susan married. They bore 2 children, Thomas and Sophie. (Peter also has a daughter, Emily, from a brief second marriage.) They hiked together and researched and published about dementia, depression and treatment of older adults. “Ours was a forever love—until forever was cut short.”
By the time Susan’s breast cancer was discovered, it had spread to her bones and liver. Still, while struggling through much treatment (at Karmanos, where I was also treated), she continued to volunteer at her kids’ school and to hike with Peter.
14 years after Susan and Peter were wed, Susan died. At her funeral, Peter said, “Susan embraced each day of her life fiercely. She did this for me and for her children… and gave off an uplifting life force wherever she went.”
Peter honored the memory of Becky and Susan by establishing the Lichtenberg Memorial Scholarship for students dedicated to a career helping older adults. The official description reads: “This fund was inspired by the lives of two extraordinary yet self-effacing women.”
Peter concludes his remarkable essay with a look backward and forward…
“Grief knocked me off balance with fear, sadness, despair and pessimism. As I re-emerge, my feet are firm on the ground and life feels familiar; I feel familiar… I am healing! Yes, I carry scars… but I can live with them. The scars are part of who I am, symbols of loss—but, more importantly, of the love that has filled my life to the brim.”
(To read Peter’s entire essay, go to http://www.opentohope.com/death-of-a-spouse/. Thanks, Norine Zimmer, for introducing me to such an inspiring man.)