Family mourns double loss

Published May 31, 2007

ZEPHYRHILLS - She never had kids of her own, so her nephew was like a son. He treated her like he would his mother.

So when Catherine Geiger's health started failing last year, Raymond Geiger rushed to her side.

As long as he was around, she would not be torn away from her home, the one on Geiger Road with the comfy back porch, to sleep in an unfamiliar nursing home bed.

He moved in. While his wife kept their menagerie of African grays and chows at their home in town, Raymond took care of his aunt's every need.

Catherine died last Friday at age 92. Family members knew it was coming. But one day later, Raymond, who was 20 years younger, surprised them when he died, too.

"He had a bad heart, but it was nothing we were expecting, " said Raymond's granddaughter, Sheri Cook, who spent her 34th birthday mourning two family members at First Baptist Church of Zephyrhills.

She said Raymond, whom she called "Papa, " had come down with pneumonia the day his aunt died. Doctors told the family it was the worst pneumonia they'd ever seen.

"He was taking care of her and not taking care of himself, " Cook said. "He was not letting anyone know how sick he was."

Cook said Raymond wouldn't leave his aunt's side unless another relative was there. Hospice nurses helped out, but he wouldn't take respite care.

That's all too common, said Tom Beason, a program specialist in charge of spiritual care and bereavement for Hernando Pasco Hospice.

"If you really have dedicated yourself to taking care of someone, it's easy to ignore your health and stretch yourself beyond your limits, " he said.

Beason also said that many caregivers' identities are tied up in helping a sick loved one. When that person dies, they may not know what to do with themselves. Some die not long afterward.

"The fundamental crisis in bereavement is not of the other but of the self, because as long as one could, one did everything for the other. And now, nothing can be done."

When she was younger, Catherine, known to family members as "Aunt Cabbie, " helped feed many a student in the lunchroom at West Zephyrhills Elementary School. Until she took ill, she baked a mean lemon meringue pie and cheese biscuits that Cook savored. She had lost some of her vision, but her mind was sharp to the end.

Cook said her grandfather spent his life caring for others. He was a handyman who was quick to help a neighbor in need. In later years, despite his heart condition, he continued to climb on roofs to do home repairs. He loved his animals. And he loved the University of Florida Gators.

But what he loved most was family, especially his aunt.

"Their lives were so intertwined, " Cook said.

However, even at the double funeral, loved ones took care to honor their individual personalities. Each had favorite songs performed. Catherine's casket spray featured her favorite color, pink.

And atop Raymond's: Gator orange and blue.

Lisa Buie can be reached at 813 909-4604 or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.