Canada·First Person

I'm married to my partner but feel widowed by her dementia

Sharon Hunter’s partner of more than 30 years has young onset dementia. The disease has put their relationship in limbo, and Hunter feels the ambiguous loss deep in her body.

That’s why I’ve come up with a new word to describe my marital status: marrowed

A woman wearing a blue surgical mask puts her arms next to a smiling woman who is seated. A purple ribbon surrounds them.
Sharon Hunter with her partner, Stacy Garrioch, in December 2022. Garrioch has early-onset dementia. (Photo submitted by Sharon Hunter; Graphic by Frederic Demers/CBC)

This First Person article is written by Sharon Hunter, who lives in Winnipeg. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.

My marital status? 

Marrowed. Thanks for asking.

This past Valentine's Day, grief came up from behind and sucker-punched me. Grief is like that. I thought I was prepared for the day of love because it wasn't my first without my partner, but I wasn't.

After more than 30 years together, my partner and I were recently separated, but not in the way you typically think of people being separated. 

She moved into a personal-care home in 2022 as I could no longer handle her destructive behaviours — a result of the early-onset dementia that is corroding and eating her brain. She was diagnosed two years earlier. 

The entire dementia journey has been a nightmare on so many levels, but sometimes there are these poignant moments that just highlight all the losses and pain I have experienced since dementia entered our lives. That's what happened this past Valentine's Day.

I navigated my first Valentine's Day alone in 2022. I didn't do it gracefully, but I got through it. This year, I thought I would be OK. But that day, the main floor of my house had been emptied because I was getting the floors redone and then a crew showed up to cut down the beautiful, diseased, 100-year-old elm tree in the front yard. There was something about the empty house and the felling of that tree that opened the door to the grief I carry with me all the time now. 

The house shook every time a branch hit the ground just like my legs shook every time a crying spasm took over my body. That tree, in all its glory and disease, became a symbol of my partner and our life together. The tree was cut down by the foresters in a couple of hours. My partner, in all her glory and disease, is being cut down by dementia just as quickly. 

A crew in a truck near a tree on a snowy street.
When work crews felled a tree in Hunter’s front yard on Feb. 14, it reminded her of her partner whose vitality and memory was being cut down by dementia. (Submitted by Sharon Hunter)

My partner can no longer remember Valentine's Day. Or my birthday or our anniversary. She's never again going to be able to buy me flowers or get me a corny card. The essence of her being is eroding away. So it's like I'm widowed. And yet I'm not a widow because my partner is alive.

There are no rituals for this kind of loss of a partner; no funerals, no celebrations of life. There's no public acknowledgement of the grief I carry on a daily basis — the grief that sometimes makes it hard for me to breathe. 

Ironically, it was a friend who was recently widowed who pointed this out to me. Therapists call this ambiguous loss. I call it gut-wrenching pain that happens over and over again. It's like a really bad version of the movie Groundhog Day without any of the funny parts.

We don't have a word yet for those of us living in this dementia-induced limbo. And when we don't have a word for something it doesn't exist. But I exist. My partner exists. And we deserve to have a name that identifies and represents our status with all the pain and challenges we now have.

So I made up a new word for myself: Marrowed. I'm marrowed. Married and simultaneously widowed. I like that "marrow" becomes the core part of the word when you combine "married" and "widowed," because marrow is essential to life and valuable. It's what we need to survive. And my partner still needs me. I'm essential and valuable. To her. To me. I'm the marrow of our relationship now.

And the grief from losing my partner to this disease? I truly feel that in the marrow of my bones along with anger, resentment, fear and anxiety. Every. Single. Day. 

An older woman sits next to a girl in a prom dress on a bench under a tree.
Hunter’s partner and granddaughter share a moment together before prom in June, 2021. (Submitted by Sharon Hunter)

Most of these emotions ebb and flow, although anger and resentment stuck around for a long time, but love is the emotion that will stay in my marrow. Dementia creates such complicated pain and grief and it has almost destroyed our relationship, but the love we have for each other is still there. She still tells me she loves me every time I see her and I do the same. 

Our fierce love will win. It always does.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.


Sharon Hunter

Freelance contributor

Sharon Hunter (she/her) lives in Winnipeg, also known as Treaty One Territory and the birthplace of the Metis nation. She became a reluctant advocate for caregivers and people living with dementia, especially those in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, when her partner was diagnosed with young-onset dementia. She has also given a presentation for the Alzheimer Society of Canada while she has been navigating this dementia journey.