After my husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2016, we found his final "to do" list. It was full of favours that fell beyond the scope of his job – references for ex-students and colleagues, manuscripts he’d offered to read, articles he’d promised. His last email to me was a link to resources on teen anxiety for my daughter (his step-daughter).
When I was cleaning out his desk at home, I found two concert tickets he’d bought for my birthday. Tucked in behind the books on his shelves, we kept discovering little toys he’d bought and hidden for our then five-year-old son. I lost count of the number of Amazon deliveries of new DVDs of my favourite TV shows, ordered by him months before he died, or a book by an author he knew I’d love. We were living in a real-life, P.S. I Love You.
The one thing that wasn’t on his "to do" list was to have the angiogram that would have saved his life. The result of that angiogram would have been a diagnosis of coronary artery disease. The fix would have been day surgery to have stents inserted.
He died before he made that test a priority.
In every action he took leading up to his death, he was focused exclusively on helping other people. On loving us. On going above, beyond, over, under, inside, outside and through for us.
He loved us to death. His death.
Two years after he died, and after I’d spoken about this, written about it and nagged repeatedly in person, my 87-year-old father was finally guilted into having a heart checkup too. He told the cardiologist he was only doing it to placate me.
The angiogram showed 90 per cent blockages in his arteries. I took him to the hospital and watched as he cruised through a simple procedure that would have completely transformed our family’s future had my husband had it. In learning how easy the problem was to fix, my heart was broken all over again.
Last week, after a barrage of criticism for its heartless victim-blaming, the Heart Foundation withdrew an emotionally-brutal advertising campaign that badly misjudged the impact on a grieving audience. Actors delivered cold statements about their heart health to their families. Perhaps the most bafflingly irresponsible line, and the first to be removed after public backlash, was that of a parent saying to a child, "Every time I said I loved you, I was lying."
The implication, particularly for a young audience, was clear. The people we’d lost didn’t love us. We weren’t prioritised. They didn’t care about their own hearts or about ours. We didn’t matter.
I appreciate the Heart Foundation’s frustration. Australians are staggeringly complacent about our biggest killer. Even with heart disease in your family, it’s easy to think, "it will never happen to me".
When it does, it’s over in seconds. No warning signs. No time for goodbye. Just the people you adore, endlessly scrambling to gather their wits in your wake and piece together some semblance of a future without you.
Last week’s campaign was a blood-bath of emotional manipulation and recalled trauma. Official responses to complaints on Facebook insulted the intelligence of bereaved stakeholders with claims that the campaign (broadcast on radio during the school run and on the sides of trams and buses, on social media, TV and in magazines) was "not targeted towards children".
It was fuelled by a desire to shock audiences from their Pollyanna-like slumber and book the simple and free heart check that could save their lives, and their family’s pain. It’s a message that must be drummed home loudly.
But, in its execution, the campaign caused immeasurable collateral damage to victims’ mental health. Children grieve as they grow. They process their losses at each developmental stage anew. Whoever created and okayed a reprehensible advertising campaign has clearly never sat a five-year-old down and told him Daddy died last night.
It’s not too late for the Australian public to salvage some good out of this PR debacle. Dig through the wreckage and the key message is very strong. Book a Medicare-funded heart check with your doctor.
Don’t die with an unfinished to-do list of things that feel important to you right now, but aren’t. Get your heart checked because you love your family. So hard it hurts.
Take the word of someone who was suddenly widowed at 42 and is now raising kids who’ll never be the same again. Even the biggest hearts can break.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the insidious truth was creeping up on us. Near the end, every time he told us he loved us, he was dying.
Emma Grey is a Canberra author. Her husband died in 2016 of undiagnosed heart disease.