Patrick Swayze is Gone, But His Wife Still Texts Him


While boarding a plane in July, Lisa Niemi sent a text message to her husband, the actor Patrick Swayze. Even though he died of pancreatic cancer a year ago Tuesday.

It could have been a scene out of "Ghost," the romantic comedy starring Swayze and Demi Moore. Niemi, 54, said it helps her feel his presence.

Her behavior is not unusual, say psychologists who help grieving spouses. In fact, it is normal -- a kind of "magical thinking."

Joan Didion coined the term in her 2005 memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne.

In the days after Dunne collapsed of a heart attack before her at dinner, Didion wrote she was afraid to give away his shoes, for fear that he would return and need them.

Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died of brain cancer a year ago, said his absence in their Washington home is palpable: "Teddy's in every room."

"My heart is so heavy," she recently told the Boston Globe.

Those who grieve live "in a different world," according to Maryland psychologist Ursula Weide, a bereavement specialist.

"And there are no meds to 'treat' the trauma," she said. "Society wants an instant fix but there is none."

Niemi, who will appear on the televised Stand UpTo Cancer benefit today to raise funds for research, said she always texted Swayze while traveling.

"I just put what I always did: 'I love you.' And then I cried for a little bit to myself," she told People magazine. "It [the text message] didn't come back. So either somewhere out there received it, or someone's going, 'Somebody loves me!' And you know what? I figured it was a win-win situation."

Grief has no timeline, according to psychological experts, and it varies according to each individual. According to Weide, about 15 percent of those with a loss experience "traumatic grief," unable to move forward.

The sense of loss is "permanent," and the person who feels it is forever changed, she said, but most are eventually able to move on from the acute phase and manage the pain.

Weide knows. She lost her husband at the age of 47.

'Only Death Would Provide Relief

"When I received the phone call, I was pushed into a dimension of existence I had been unaware of so far," she writes on her website. "I was unable to eat or sleep for three days and nights, running on something unknown inside of me. Once fitful sleep returned for a few hours each night, I fought waking up in the morning, knowing that something dreadful was going to overwhelm me once I would become fully conscious. During my waking hours, I felt locked into a concrete cell of pain which I was unable to escape. Only death would provide relief, as I knew."

Weide describes being "amnesic," forgetting words mid-sentence and getting lost driving, living her life like a robot in slow motion. She had no appetite and chronic stomach pain.

She likens "traumatic grief" to post-traumatic stress syndrome and major depression and advocates for treating it as such.

Kind words and comforting phrases are not enough. Many who are experiencing traumatic grief need to treat "dimensions of pain and trauma we are unable to gauge unless we have been there ourselves, " said Weide.

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