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Finding Grief Support after Losing His Wife to Leukemia

Kenneth Slack woke up in the middle of the night, hearing his wife, Debby, fall. He remembers the exact date—November 7, 2017. The morning after, when Kenneth took Debby to the hospital emergency room, a series of tests showed her platelets and red blood cell counts were low. After keeping Debby for five days to stabilize her, the hospital made her an appointment with a cancer specialist.

"The very next day was her appointment, so we knew something was going on," Kenneth says. "When we met with the doctor, they brought us into a consultation room and told us that Debby had leukemia, specifically acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. We left that appointment shell shocked."

Debby and Kenneth went to Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) the next day and immediately met with a care team. For her entire treatment, Debby and Kenneth were at HCI almost every day, where she had bloodwork done several times a week. The treatments seemed to be working at first, but the cancer progressed quickly.

Kenneth says, "Even when things are at their worst, at least one family member should always have a positive outlook. For us, that person was me. It’s important to never give up hope."

Kenneth and Debby in 1982
Kenneth and Debby in 1982

Kenneth and Debby fought for as much time together as possible. "We were married 32 years and were counting on 60 or 70 together—our whole lives," Kenneth says. "The leukemia took her in six months. You never know how things are going to turn out, but with leukemia, it can be pretty aggressive, and they do the very best they can."

Debby passed away in the spring of 2018. Fall of that same year, Kenneth decided to attend an eight-week grief support group offered by the University of Utah.

"I finally decided I’d better go to grief support because I was really struggling," Kenneth explains. "It helped a lot. You were able to listen to other people and how they were dealing with losing their spouse, or in some cases, a child or a parent. The program gave us ideas and tips to help. It showed there are other ways to deal with grief."

As someone who has always been a busy person, Kenneth says he still goes 100 miles per hour. He takes care of his two children, keeps in touch with friends, and also serves on HCI’s patient advisory council.

"I can’t say that I’m going to get through it," Kenneth says of losing his wife to cancer. "I’m never going to get over it, but you move forward."

Learn more about HCI support groups that help patients and their loved ones cope with illness and grief.