After two decades of writing about other people's medical woes, it still made me incredibly nervous to publish my own story a month ago about caring for my husband as he died of brain cancer.

I had written before about the movement toward death at home - the "good death" that comes when one is surrounded by family and familiar objects, when one accepts that controlling pain, not fighting for one last medical miracle in an intensive-care unit, is the better way to go.

After my own experience with hospice at home, I concluded that it was a relatively good death for my husband, if there can be such a thing for a 56-year-old man. But I'm not sure that any death is going to be good for the family. Better, yes, but not good. And I learned it was much more physically and emotionally demanding than most of us imagine before we volunteer for the saddest, most grueling job of our lives. I said we needed to know more about how death happens and what is expected of caregivers before our loved ones start sleeping all the time and losing their appetites.

I worried that readers might find me whiny or, even more horrifying for a recovering perfectionist like me, just incompetent. I thought they might berate me for deciding they needed to know more about death and then proceeding to tell them.

It didn't happen. Instead, I got hundreds of comments, virtually all positive. It turned out people did want to read about death and a lot of them wanted to talk about the deaths that had changed their lives.

You can read some of the e-mails at http://www.philly.com/caregiving.

To my surprise, given the health-care reform debate, no one talked about the cost of serious illness in this country. When there was complaining, it was more often about doctors who hadn't explicitly and simply told families how sick their relatives were.

More often, though, people just offered encouragement and empathy. They thanked me for sharing information that remains largely taboo. Many told stories of heroic caregiving. They memorialized.

Overwhelmingly, the e-mails were about love. Death is, after all, a universal experience, and it was heartening to see that it had inspired so much kindness, sacrifice and strength.

"I always say that I learned more about life from death than I have from anything else," wrote Karen Spiro of Philadelphia, who cared for her parents as they died.

 

Larry Maltin of Dresher talked about how valuable it is to conquer your fear and spend some time with a dying friend or coworker. "The last thing I would want to have on my mind when attending someone's funeral service would be regret that I hadn't made the effort to visit them in their last days," he said.

Jeanne Hoff of Jeffersonville said to forget health food in the final days. "I say, eat junk, lots and lots of it. Eat whatever you want. Put ice cream on top of pizza if it will taste good and make you happy."

Bernadette Maida of Philadelphia wrote movingly of both the challenges and rewards of caring for her parents. She said: "I don't know how many people appreciate the enormous sacrifices made by thousands upon thousands of caregivers each and every day (and night)."

Several people said my descriptions of the shortcomings of adult diapers and my conflicted feelings as I gave my husband morphine triggered their memories, but an e-mail from Gail Powers of St. Louis gave me one of those aha! moments.

"A day or so after your husband died, did you find yourself walking through the house picking up all evidence of his illness and throwing it into trash bags?" she asked. (The answer is: YES!) "My daughter and I caught ourselves doing this - throwing cancer out of the house. It was the first of many experiences that helped us start to heal. We didn't realize that healing would take so long."

And then there were the people who turned to the what-comes-next question: widowhood - that potent emotional brew of grief, fear, post-traumatic stress, longing, adolescent angst, unshared responsibility, freedom, and re-creation. That's no picnic either.

"Unfortunately, you are now a member of another relatively little discussed club of premature widows and widowers with its own unknown initiations and experiences that I was equally unprepared for," wrote John Szum of East Walpole, Mass., whose wife died of breast cancer. "Fortunately, time is a great healer and, as I was counseled at the time, you and your children will be fine in the long run."

One of the more uplifting notes came from Rockie Hughes-Walsh of Doylestown, whose husband died of lung cancer. "Eleven years later, and I am happily remarried (never in a million years thought THAT would happen), a grandmom of two gorgeous little girls, stepmom to my husband's two boys and have step-grandchildren," she wrote. "My son and his new bride are expecting one in November. So, life does go on, and happiness prevails. It just didn't seem possible at the time that I would ever have fun or live again."

Feel free to keep writing me about cancer care, caregiving, the dying process, or widowhood. And we'll publish more of these e-mails online.

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.