What Do You Do When You Lose the Person You Love?

Transformation

Collegeville resident Krissie Pannullo tells the story of how she met her husband, Dan — and how she’s making a life for herself now that he’s passed away.


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death of a loved one

Krissie Pannullo’s husband, Dan, died of pancreatic cancer about four months ago. / Photograph courtesy of Krissie Pannullo

Who I am: Krissie Pannullo (@phillynerdgirl)

Where I live: Collegeville

What I do: I’m a bioanalytical chemist.

***

Dan and I met through online dating. I came across him on, I believe it was OK Cupid and reached out to him ‘cuz his [user]name was Soccer Dan. I’d searched ‘soccer’ because I had just started playing again, and I wanted to date someone who was at least interested in the game. We went back and forth messaging, and I was supposed to meet him. But I had gotten out of a really long relationship six months prior and wasn’t mentally ready to take on a new one.

Then I was playing in a league out in King of Prussia with some girlfriends and saw him getting ready for the next game, like, ‘Oh my god, that’s the guy I blew off.’” A month or two after that, I was on a different dating app and he popped up for the third time. I was like, ‘All right, this guy keeps showing up on my radar.’ We messaged again, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I still remember you. Do you want to finally go out on a date?’ It was a Sunday. He was like, ‘I’m free tonight or Thursday. I was going to pick Thursday, then was like, ‘Screw it, let’s watch Sunday Night Football at the boathouse in Conshy.’”

We didn’t watch any football at all. I think we closed the bar down. It was an instant connection. Crazy ‘cuz I’m very much not in the instant soulmate camp. But I was thinking, ‘If this guy’s for real, I could totally marry him.’ What helps is we had all these mutual friends that we weren’t aware of. We could have accidentally met multiple times before, and it just never happened.

Basically from that day forward, we were together. We got married on September 4th, 2016. Our wedding was awesome. It was the best party I probably will ever throw. We had 15 different beers. We’re both sort of beer dorks, but me more than him. Since I’m a chemist and a scientist, we made a beer-iodic table. He found something like that online and was like, ‘You should do this.’ I was like, ‘You are the best because this was a brilliant idea — and you found it and thought of me.’

death of a loved one

Krissie and Dan Pannullo at their wedding in September 2016. / Photograph by Tiffany Atlas of Atlas Wedding Photography

This time of year last year is where he started exhibiting that something wasn’t right. He started getting this weird abdominal pain. We thought maybe it was an ulcer. It seemed to flair up after he would eat and get worse at night. At a certain point, I said I thought he needed to go see a doctor. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t take anything for anything. He was like, ‘I’m fine, it’ll go away.’

The first week of June, I was away at a work conference in San Diego. He finally went to go see a primary care provider. The doctor thought he needed to get some blood work and an ultrasound done. He’s being kind of vague. The next morning, I sent him a text asking if he scheduled the appointment. A couple hours later, he sent a text and said he just got home from the ER and has to go see an oncologist. I work in pharma in research and development, and oncology’s been something I’ve been on many projects for. I immediately knew that meant cancer.

They’d done the ultrasound and thought they saw a mass on his pancreas. Then they put him through a CAT scan and said, ‘Actually, no, that was a lymph node. All your lymph nodes are completely enlarged. Your pancreas is enlarged. We think it might be lymphoma.’ I was ready to take a red eye back. He said he couldn’t see the oncologist until Tuesday and I’d be back Monday, so not to worry.

There are several different subtypes of lymphoma, and some are worse than others. We thought, ‘OK, we can kind of wrap our heads around this. Maybe it’ll be terrible for a while, but we’ll get through it.’ His aunt had Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 17, and she’s in her 50s now. They scheduled a biopsy for his lymph node on June 29th. We went into the doctor’s office and sat down, and the doctor said, ‘It’s not lymphoma. It’s pancreatic cancer, stage IV.’ He has no family history. He was a soccer referee. He ran Broad Street in an hour and 22 minutes. One of the most active people you’d probably know. I can close my eyes and see both of us in the office at that moment. It was the most devastating thing anyone has said to us.

The doctor explained that there’s two different chemo regimens that tend to be given. One is harsher than the other. He immediately recommended that we go down to Penn just to get a second opinion. That’s what we did the following week. They immediately said, ‘This is it.’ Tuesday, he had his port put in. Wednesday, he started chemotherapy. The regimen is called Folfirinox — three different types of chemo and a B vitamin. It involved six hours of infusions in the office three days every other week, and he was on a home pump for 36 hours following. Initially, he responded. Everything was shrinking, and he was feeling good. We almost had a sense of normalcy, a routine. We could go visit people. We didn’t have to be overly cautious about him going out in public. We just started wrapping our heads around this being our new normal. After three months, though, he became resistant to the chemo.

We actually went down to Penn to look into clinical trials, hoping maybe there was something that was in development that he’d be a good candidate for. That would bide his time. He and I were very realistic about the whole situation. We had conversations about the fact that this is an incurable cancer. We openly said he would probably die from this. But we were hoping we could limp from one thing to the next to delay it as long as possible, maybe get some bucket list things checked off.

About the end of October, early November, he was trying to get into a trial and made it through. But then he got randomized to make it through to just chemo. They tried a different chemo regimen to see if that would give us more time. They did a series of CAT scans in mid-December, and that one wasn’t working at all. All his lymph nodes were increasing. Over the course of the next month, he just deteriorated.

He couldn’t talk over a whisper because one of the lymph nodes was pushing on his vocal cords causing paralysis, and we went down to Penn to see if they could alleviate some of that. The doctors said that, in his state, he was so skinny and in a wheelchair, it was time to make him comfortable.

We got the order for home hospice. We were lucky in that his best friend’s mom worked in hospice, and they were under our insurance. They send a nurse and a coordinator person out to figure out what you need — a bed, oxygen, medications. They have on-call nurses, and a nurse who can come by every day or every other day depending on what the schedule is. I was really grateful because he hated hospitals. Every time we’d have to go into the doctor’s office, whether it was 8 a.m or 1 p.m., we were late every time. He did not want to be there.

They said he’d make it a few weeks to a couple months at most. He made it six days.  January 23rd is on his death certificate. He actually passed on the 22nd, but when hospice showed up to declare him, it was actually the next day.

Afterward, it was just unreal. His parents were here. His sister was here. Two of my sisters came over. His best friends both came over. I didn’t sleep much that night, obviously. The funeral director came by to basically ask me all the questions — Did I want to have a funeral? What does he want done with his remains? Those are all questions that no one in their 30s ever wants to be asked. We didn’t have a will ‘cuz we were young. That’s my advice to everyone. Please, for the love of God, get a will so you don’t have to be guessing at these types of things. I had asked if there were any specific things he wanted, and that made it a little easier. But, still, you’re just sitting there as people are asking you what type of urn would you like, and there’s these options and colors, and you’re like, ‘WHAT, I don’t know, this is the weirdest, most unreal thing I’ve ever experienced.’

He had told me he didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a big party with his friends and family. He originally said, ‘Everyone I know.’ I was like, ‘I can’t throw a party that big. You don’t know how many people you actually know.’ We did do a memorial when he passed. It was a casual kind of gathering for people that needed that kind of closure. I think the receiving line was hours long. We didn’t even have that for our wedding. It shows how much he was loved for people who knew him or knew me or knew both of us.

Our birthdays were a week apart, in March. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to be home or in this space or around anyone. I didn’t want to experience his first birthday without him here. We had honeymooned in Costa Rica, so I reached out to the place we stayed. They had some space, so I booked a week, and it was awesome, I might do it every year. Along those same lines, we were married Labor Day weekend, so I’m going to Iceland then because, again, I don’t want to be physically here in that time period. I had told him at one point after seeing friends go there that that was our next vacation. I’m going to finish what we started in that sense. It’s giving me things to look forward to.

death of a loved one

Krissie and Dan honeymooned in Costa Rica. Krissie returned there this year around the same time as their birthdays. / Photograph by Sean Gleason of SurfCosta

I try to remind myself, when I have moments when I’m sinking and feeling horrible that Dan would be so, so pissed at me if I just stopped living. He would be livid. And, if it were the other way around, it would be the same for him. I wouldn’t want him to not go back to work or not do the things we thought were fun and exciting and enjoyed together. Like we played soccer together, so I’m playing soccer again.

But also because we met when we were in our 30s, we were already established as people. I was his wife, but that wasn’t everything that I was. I think that has helped me move on. Or not move on, but move forward in a sense that I don’t feel like my whole identity is gone just because he’s not with me anymore.

I’m the same person and not the same person at the same time. It’s a significant life moment that will forever impact you, and it will never not be a part of who I am now. I’d fortunately been seeing a wonderful therapist even before Dan passed. She recommended, and I agreed with her to keep a couple things constant. She was like, ‘I totally support the trips and the fun activities but maybe keep the work and home steady.’ I plan to keep working at my job and stay in the house and lean into whatever else pops up as it does.

Pannullo doing aeria yoga. / Photograph by Chelsea Mitlas

I’m going to yoga more regularly than I used to. Part of that is I try to keep busy most days. If there’s too much down time, it’s not good for my head space. At the same time, you don’t want to shove it down so that you never deal with it. I carry notebooks with me wherever I go. Between those and the Notepad app on my phone, I’ve been jotting random things down that I’ve found comforting or inspiring or if a memory gets sparked of Dan through a conversation with a friend, I can write it down. ‘Cuz I don’t want to forget any of that.

I have a really awesome support network behind me that encourages self-care. Between my family and the family of his that I’m in touch with and our mutual friends and my friends and his friends that have become my friends, I have people that say, ‘If you don’t feel like doing something, just don’t do it.’ You do feel compelled to respond to every single message, though, and it’s overwhelming sometimes.

I can definitely say I don’t fear death the way I used to. I still hope it’s not unpleasant and not before I’m ready. But this experience sort of shifts your whole perspective. I’ve accepted that when it happens, it’s going to happen. It’s really bizarre. Fortunately, I made friends with another widow who’s my age. We’d started following each other years prior. Her husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer in May of last year, and he passed in August. Dan followed not long after that. She didn’t live anywhere near here, but we ended up meeting up in person. It’s been this amazing connection through this shared, shitty situation that we’ve had. We’re openly sharing the grief and struggles and triumph we’re going through in the wake of becoming young widows. Which is a weird thing to say — ‘I’m a widow.’ It’s the shortest way of saying that I’m someone whose person died. I don’t like saying I’m single. That kind of implies there was a break-up. It’s like, ‘No, I didn’t willingly leave this relationship.’ It was ripped out of my hands.

I certainly have moments where I sit with my grief. Other times, I try to grab it by the balls and say, ‘Not today.’

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