Grieving the Loss of a Spouse: The First Five Months

Five months ago my life was changed forever. My wife, Kathy, died of breast cancer after a 14-year struggle with this terrible disease.

I can’t image many things more difficult than the loss of a spouse. During the time since her death, I’ve been comforted by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have contacted me by email, by letter and in person to reflect on how she touched their lives.

Kathy was a two-star general in the United States Army whose last assignment before her retirement in April of 2005 was as commander of the Army, Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). As such, she was responsible for establishing all the PX’s (post exchanges) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following her death, I received a hand-written note of condolence from Gen. George Casey who commands our troops in Iraq. And I received a gracious hand-written letter from President George W. Bush. Even though the president and I often disagreed on political matters, it meant a great deal to me that he took the time to comfort me in my time of loss.

Equally important, I received notes from dozens of women Army officers, both on active duty and retired, whom Kathy had mentored during her 31 years of service. Kathy had been a role model and an inspiration to these women. I remember distinctly one particularly important piece of advice that Kathy often offered other women in the Army. The standard green Army uniform for women comes with both a skirt and pants. Kathy counseled other women in the Army to wear the skirt as often as possible. They didn’t need to try to dress like a man. They could be feminine and still succeed in a man’s world. She did.

I took the time recently to read Mort Kondracke’s beautiful little book, “Saving Milly.” In it, Mort writes about his wife’s long struggle with Parkinson’s disease and how if affected their relationship. Millie died after Mort completed the book. Mort’s book was a love letter that everyone with a terminally ill spouse should read. It frankly describes the challenges presented by her illness and how his love for her never faltered.

Mort detailed some of the very same fears and emotions that I experienced during his wife’s steady decline in health. It is not an easy read, but it reminded me of the good times and of the depth of my commitment to Kathy.

Reading Mort’s book also is helpful in the process of eventually letting go. Mort is a successful journalist about the same age I am. We both loved our wives deeply and we both understood that we have to keep on living. We both have personal and professional lives that didn’t stop even though we suffered great loss.

I am often asked to speak as a part of programs about Congress. During the question and answer sessions following my remarks, usually someone will ask about the role of women, especially Hillary Clinton, in current American politics. As part of my standard response, I discuss how difficult it is for women to advance in all aspects of our society (politics, the media, business, the military). And I usually include in these remarks a brief discussion of Kathy’s career and what made her a success in a male dominated world.

Recently, in a program sponsored by the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute for senior level federal civil servants, I went into great detail about the obstacles Kathy faced as she moved up the ranks in the military. I told the group about how she was passed over for selection as a full-time student for the Army War College and for the Command and General Staff School – both prerequisites for becoming a general officer. Not to be deterred, Kathy completed both courses by correspondence.

And in one of the great ironies of life, Kathy believed that she was given her first command as a colonel (another prerequisite for promotion to general) because the person making the selection confused her with another blond woman Army officer. The rest is history. Kathy seized the moment. She did an outstanding job as Commander of the Eastern Sector of the Military Entrance Processing Command and was shortly thereafter given her first star.

At the conclusion of my remarks, a woman in the audience came up to me and said how refreshing it was to hear a man publicly praise his wife.

Maybe it was Mort’s book that inspired me to particular eloquence that day. Maybe it was the passage of time since Kathy’s death and the opportunity to reflect on our all-too-brief time together. But whatever motivated me, I’m thankful that I have reached the point of being able to move beyond grief and into a true appreciation of that very special person who shared the good times and the bad with me during the last eight years.

During the past five months, people have asked what they can do to honor Kathy’s memory. Her family and friends have established the Kathryn George Frost Leadership Foundation that will award college scholarships to women graduates of her high school in Latta, South Carolina. Anyone wishing to make a tax-exempt contribution may send a check to the Foundation at 111 W. Main St., Latta, S.C., 29565.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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