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Year after husband’s death, Utah ethicist reflects on her journey through grief

First Published Jul 31 2014 06:39PM      Last Updated Aug 04 2014 10:23 am

Peggy Battin knows all about dying.

As a nationally recognized ethicist at the University of Utah, she has spent decades analyzing every element of knotty end-of-life issues.

But a year ago, Battin confronted a new kind of knowing — the personal kind — and quickly discovered the two forms of knowledge are not the same.

On July 31, 2013, Battin’s husband, 71-year-old Brooke Hopkins, died from injuries he suffered in a November 2008 bicycle accident, which had severed his spinal cord. For 4½ years, Hopkins, once a handsome, lanky outdoor enthusiast and popular English professor at the U., struggled to survive and build a new life.

It took more than two years for him to breathe on his own enough to return to his Salt Lake City home. There, he required round-the-clock care — endless medicines, physical therapy, tubes and machines — all the while enduring pain, infections and setbacks.

Though still paralyzed, Hopkins resumed teaching eager students — mostly retired educators — from an automated wheelchair in his living room. No longer could he pace in front of a blackboard, but his insights into Homer’s "Odyssey," Dante’s "Divine Comedy," Melville’s "Moby-Dick" and Thoreau’s "Walden" were more astute than ever.

Eventually, though, the physical toll became too great.

After requesting that his life-supporting machines be turned off, Hopkins died painlessly and peacefully, with Battin curled up beside him on a bed in the Avenues home they shared, and the gospel music of Marion Williams’ "My Soul Looks Back" wafting through the space around them.

Then came Battin’s new knowing.

A life of one » "It has not been the easiest year," Battin acknowledges, but, true to form, the inescapably intellectual ethicist not only experienced grief — she also examined it, named it and made it her own.

The famed physician Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first described five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying."

To Battin, though, it seemed more like she moved through four stages.

First came the sorrow, she says, "acute, acute howling sorrow where you just can’t believe it."

Then there was self-imposed seclusion. "It was," she says, "a kind of retreat." For some months, she didn’t turn on the TV or radio or music. Didn’t go to the movies or a restaurant or the symphony. It wasn’t born of some religious tradition or custom — it just felt natural, right.

Then came solitude, which, she says, is different from seclusion. "You are a little more accepting of the situation," Battin says. "You are alone and it’s all right."



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