How can a marriage survive consecutive health emergencies? What does it take for both people to feel seen and understood? Why is intentionality vital to maintaining the relationship?
In the twelfth episode of the How I Got Through It series, Joe Sanok speaks about getting through serious health issues affecting nearly every part of their marriage with Ellen and Pete Gigliotti.
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Ellen J.W. Gigliotti, LMFT, is the clinical director of Sanctuary Christian Counseling in Shippensburg, PA. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology, and earned her MA in marriage and family therapy from Evangelical Theological Seminary. She has also done postgraduate work in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EFT, and sexual addiction.
Dr. Peter Gigliotti earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from St. Bonaventure (N.Y.) University in 1974. After graduation, he began a 14-year career in the media as a reporter or editor for Gannett Co. newspapers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He also served as Director of Public Information for the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs. He earned his Master of Science degree in Communication Studies from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in 1995 and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2002 from Duquesne University.
He joined Shippensburg University in 1988. As Executive Director for University Communications and Marketing, he was the university’s chief communications officer for 28 years.
He founded CrisisComm LLC in 2016 after his retirement from the university and provides advice and support to educational, governmental, emergency service agencies, and businesses in a crisis.
In both 2015 and 2019, Pete had health issues that left the doctors concerned that he would not make it.
One of the main issues we had was the fact that for me, the health issues [were] emotionally more draining than physically … it showed me I was not the person I thought I was. (Pete Gigliotti)
At the time, Pete and Ellen had little family to lean on for support during these ominous months and had to cope with a lot of the uncertainty and pain on their own.
We realized how important our lives are together, and it made us stronger and brought us closer together. (Pete Gigliotti)
Dealing with unexpected medical issues over multiple years brought Pete and Ellen closer together.
It made them appreciate their accomplishments, value the time that they have now, and look forward to their goals and dreams in the future with passion and gratitude.
The importance of maintaining empathy
When one spouse is chronically ill or dealing with a health crisis over an extended period of time, it can begin to weigh down on the other spouse who may feel like they are not as important or “seen” as the other.
She was the one who was traveling in the middle of winter in major snowstorms every day [for] about a hundred miles to come and see me … I think in a situation like this, both parties need to empathize with [each other]. (Pete Gigliotti)
You do not necessarily have to put yourself in their shoes but be mindful of and understand that each spouse is battling a different side to the same situation.
Redefining the relationship
It was a huge shift for me. I remember sitting down and saying, “I have to make this, I have to do this. I can’t be his caregiver or our lives as a couple is over, and I don’t want that.” (Ellen Gigliotti)
While a spouse may care for and help their partner who is ill reach recovery, the relationship needs to be redefined to suit what they both want.
A transitional period is normal, but boundaries need to be placed so that each person feels seen, respected, and can agree on what is happening in the relationship moving forward.
Ellen and Pete got through some of the most challenging experiences by:
Having a sense of humor and being able to laugh at themselves whenever needed or necessary
Planning for the good and the bad when things become uncertain while remaining open to what might change
Living out values and passions in daily life
Reach out to and spend time with loved ones in your life
I think being intentional about reaching out to communities that understand you, will listen to you, and that you can help, and then they can help you as well. That was crucial in getting through this. (Ellen Gigliotti)
Practice intentional and open communication to remain close and on the same page
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Just a trigger warning before we dive into today’s episode; in this episode, we talk about serious health issues within a marriage and people getting sick and having a tough time with it. So, just want to let you know that before you dive into today’s episode.
This is the Practice of the Practice Podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 747.
Thank you so much for joining us for this How I Got Through It Series. We have been doing this since late June, 2022, and have covered a lot of ground. Like I’ve said in many of the episodes before, this is really more for my own learning than for anything for the listeners. Nothing against you listeners, but my own uncoupling and becoming an unexpected single dad, back in episode 736 LaToya Smith, one of our consultants interviewed me about that whole story. If you missed it, that’s was sort of the impetus for wanting to talk to different people about just junk they’ve been through and how they got through it. So today I am so excited we’ve got some people here on the show that have been around for a while. We have Ellen and Pete you’ve been a part of our community for a long time. Welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast.
Thanks, Joe, we’re looking forward to being with you today.
Yes, well, rather than me doing intro, I’ve been having people just introduce themselves. So Ellen, why don’t you kick this off. Tell us a little bit about your business and your practice, and then Ellen and Pete maybe share a little bit about your personal life and family and what that looks like.
I’d be glad to do that, Joe. I am a group practice owner in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. I own Sanctuary Christian Counseling, and we have seven therapists, looking for a few more online and person to person. But we are a growing group practice and just really, really enjoying that. Our specialty is really couples. We do, of course, see individuals, but we have quite a few wonderful couples’ therapists. That’s been really, really an amazing journey. Part of that is that I really enjoy the idea of helping other people with their marriages and with their relationships and part of that is of course build out of our story, which will tell you in a minute but Pete and I decided that we would start a podcast. So we’re in the process of putting that together. We hope to have it launched by the fall. It is called Two to Talk: Steps and Missteps on Life’s Journey. I always say that wrong, but I said it right this time. So we’re in the midst of looking at all of our stories, and when you said how I got through that seemed to really resonate with our story. So, do you want to start?
Yes, actually, just a little bit about me, I’ve been in communications for over 48 years. I was a newspaper reporter for about 15 years. I spent 28 years in higher education communications, and now I’m a crisis communications consultant. It’s interesting that the way I met Ellen was back in the early mid-seventies. I was newspaper reporter at the local college, and one day I went to a trustees meeting and Ellen was there as the student representative of the student media. It was really one of those really dreary January days, and it was really cold and while Ellen was dressed nicely, she wasn’t dressed warmly, so I managed to give her my sport jacket and after the meeting, I got her number and we started dating. 43 years later, we are still married, which proves that she is definitely a Saint and is very good at her job as a marriage therapist.
That’s wonderful. Tell us a little bit about your family, who are important people in your lives other than the two of you.
Okay, so we have two children, two sons and they are both in Shippensburg with us, and that’s really nice, but unfortunately neither one of them is married. So if they’re single women out there, no, I’m just kidding. We are very, very interested in dogs, and we’ve had a number of dogs over the years. Right this moment we have one dog and he is 18 years old. He’s an English Setter and he’s 18 years old. So we’re just about to be dogless, we would imagine but it’s going to be a couple years, I think, before we get another dog, because we’re going to travel, we’re going to do a lot of traveling. That’s something that we really enjoy.
There are a number of extended family members. We have, Pete has a brother and his wife, and we have a niece and two nephews with them. We have really, really good friends that are like brother and sister and us that live in Colorado. I’m just about to go to Europe with her actually. So we’re just, we are very blessed in the people that we have around us, but we don’t have a lot of blood family. I don’t have any sisters and brothers that are alive and my parents are dead, and Pete’s parents, unfortunately, are also dead, and he has one brother, but that’s pretty much it. That actually was something that was an issue when we had to get through what we haven’t even talked about yet, but that we didn’t have a lot of family to lean on. So let me, can I jump into that, Joe?
Yes, yes. Why don’t you tell us about the serious health issues, where’s a good spot to start in that story?
Well, let me start with what happened, Joe. I mean, I have been athletic all my life. I was in multiple sports in high school and college. Even after college, I was a competitive runner. In 2014, I had my gallbladder taken out and unfortunately, I ended up with necrotizing pancreatitis, and I went into the local, regional medical center in January of ’15 and was there for three months during which time the doctors didn’t think I was going to make it. Subsequently, I managed to get out, got healthy to another degree and then 2019 I had an abdominal abscess, which required some issues and hospital —
And was related to the pancreatitis.
And was related to the pancreatitis. Then just recently I had another abdominal abscess, and recently I went through robotic surgery. Now fortunately, the robot was not the terminator and the surgery was very successful. But the issue, one of the main issues we had was, the fact for me personally, is it was emotionally draining more than physically. I mean, physically it was terrible, but it showed me, I was not the person I thought I was. I, like a lot of people thought nothing could happen to me, that I was not necessarily invulnerable, but I was not going to incur these issues. But it did. What it did is showed a lot of issues that we had to deal with and showed the support that we had. It was an interesting part of our life because we then realized how important our lives are together. It made us stronger, it brought us closer together, it gave us the opportunity to look back at the great things that we’ve accomplished and great things we’ve done and been, and also to plan for the future and the things that we want to do.
But it doesn’t do that for everybody. So one of the things that we observed is that even some of the people that we met on this journey, instead of making them closer, it’s drawn them apart. I think tragedy or difficulty, if you don’t handle it well then it does not make you closer. It is a problem. I think that one of the things that Pete and I were talking about the other night was that a lot of times people like me and like you Joe, us therapists, we say that people should talk more, and sometimes you should. Sometimes that’s exactly what you do need to do, but sometimes you also have to know when not to talk and sometimes you have to be able to have that space where you can just reflect on what’s happening to each individual.
When Pete was in the hospital the first time, well, there were a couple of different situations there, but he was in the hospital the first time and I would just go and sit with him. He wasn’t even able at that moment to talk. He was there, but he was really very ill and I would just go and sit there. I think that that was healing in a lot of ways for both of us. I could not be there. I had to be there. I’ve had people tell me since, like, “How could you do that? You were there every day.” I put my practice on hold and all kinds of things went crazy, but just the fact of being there, not even talking was a good thing. I just, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Ellen, I feel sometimes when there’s like major illness, the focus is on the person that is dealing with illness. As a caregiver, as a spouse, emotionally, how was that for you, each time that Pete was hospitalized?
Oh my goodness, so the first time that happened, Joe, it was such an eye-opening experience. You think of, if you have never done it, you think of caregiving as how hard can that be and then when you do it, you think this is the hardest thing in the entire world. I think what’s hard about that, I have reflected on that that the hardest thing about that is, and this is going to sound incredibly self-centered, and I do not mean it to sound that way because that’s not who I am at all, but when your spouse is in the hospital or your spouse is very ill, it’s never about you. After a while that becomes like, doesn’t anybody care if I have an accident on the way home? Doesn’t anybody, because you’re so accustomed to your spouse caring about you, but they’re not able to do that because they have so much going on in their own lives.
That was one of the frustrating things for me, Joe, because I was not in a position to help Ellen if something happened. Even the little things. I’m the bill payer in the family, and all the bills would electronically come to me, to my email, but I couldn’t get my email because I wasn’t in a condition to do that. So we were getting bills and she didn’t know about it. I think one of the things that’s also crucial in a situation like that is the ability to empathize. I think in this case, in some ways it was harder on Ellen, not physically, but harder on Ellen than it was on me. I was being taken care of. The hospital did great. The doctors were great, the nurses were great, but she was the one that was traveling in the middle of winter in major snowstorms every day about a hundred miles to come see me.
So I think you need in a situation like this, both parties need to empathize with the other party. You have to be able to, not necessarily put yourself in your shoes, but to understand exactly the situation that they’re in. Because if you don’t, you end up becoming too self-centered, too focused on yourself and forget you’re part of a couple, you are part of a, you’re not just yourself. You are, with the person you love, you are wanting to make sure that he or she is taking care of themselves.
One of the things that was really helpful for us is, I worked with a wonderful group of people, and they were going out of their way. I had a friend who lived about halfway between our place and the hospital who said, anytime you need to three o’clock in the morning, knock on the door and you can stay at my place. We found out that we had individuals that were supporting us that we never even knew about, not necessarily just family, not necessarily just coworkers or friends or whatever. One time we got a gas card because was traveling a lot, from a group that we had no idea who it was. It was signed by this individual. Turns out it was a men’s Bible study group that our dentist went to. So out of nowhere, people were supporting us. I mean, we were literally getting, she was getting cards and I was getting cards. Every time you open one of those cards and you read it, and you just go to yourself, “Hey, people do care.” That’s, I think, very crucial for a situation like this that as bad as you think it is, you need to remember people do care about you.
When you think about the shift in the relationship, so he’s hospitalized and then he’s recovering and maybe past the point when he’s recovering where he is maybe more back to normal, maybe he has some limitations, how did the relationship shift after the longer hospitalization?
That is a great question, because that surprised me as well. So I spent from January, basically to June 2015 being a caregiver. I remember distinctly I had to make a decision to go back into the marriage as his wife instead of a caregiver knowing that pancreatitis could come back, that there could be some other issues attached to that. He’s actually really very healthy. He’s absolutely amazing. He’s a legend at our, this is a, Penn State University Medical Center that we’ve been going to. He’s a legend there because he’s done so well. Part of that is of course, his physical fitness and he still does that. But I had to make that decision. I had to be like, okay this is, every relationship is going to end badly to some degree for one of the parties, most likely, unless you die together in some way.
So I had to, I was so scared most of those months that he was going to die, and I had to make that decision to be like, that could happen, but I still love him, and I want to go back and be his wife, and I want to have a full and real relationship for whatever time we have left. He doesn’t have a death sentence in this at all. But I didn’t, I wasn’t as knowledgeable about it then as I have become. It was a huge shift for me. I remember actually sitting down and saying, I have to make this, I have to do this. I can’t be his caregiver or our lives as a couple are over, and I don’t want that.
She she did a wonderful job of that. I mean, while she was taking care of me, literally she managed to make me feel comfortable, make me feel that she still loves me, because again, that was one of the fears I had. I mean, I went from, as I said, a healthy individual doing everything —
Running eight miles a day.
Running eight miles a day to suddenly having to use a walker to go to the bathroom. I was afraid that that was my life. I was afraid that if that happened, I was going to ruin her life. I love her so much. I don’t want to do anything that would cause her to not enjoy life, not to be able to do whatever. I mean, my concern was, gee, are we going to be able to travel anymore? I mean, I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m stuck at home the rest of my life and she looks over at me and not knowingly and not necessarily voluntarily, but I would think she wonders what she got herself into. Fortunately, things turned out and we’ve been traveling, we’ve been having a lot of fun doing a lot of different things. Obviously, Covid has stopped a lot of that but it was a situation where, like she said, she had to change from caregiver, and I had to reframe my own mind from being the all-purpose person? So we, I think, merged a little bit more than we had before. We now look at each other and realized there is a different new relationship, but it’s a better and closer relationship.
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Pete, for you, I mean, you’re a self-sufficient, independent, successful man, to go from that to the needing care, how did you emotionally handle that?
It was difficult, Joe. I really had some serious, serious doubts about what was going to happen. I was in the hospital one day, one night, let me give you piece of advice, if you’re ever in a hospital in a situation like that, don’t take a selfie at three in the morning. I had multiple, I had two tubes in my nose, I had tubes all over my body, and I took the selfie, and I looked at it months later after I was out and I thought to myself, man, this is, I don’t think I’m going to make it. As I said, the doctors a couple times didn’t think I was going to make it either. I had to mentally adjust and admit to myself that I was not the person I was.
Now, it happened when I was 62, and again, as I said, I was always athletic. I was a record-setting runner in high school, in college, and now I was not able to do that. I had to make that mental adjustment as well as physical to realize that I am no longer 20, 21. I am no longer going to be able to do everything physically I wanted to do. But mentally I need to tell myself that, look, this is something you have to really think about. One of the things, Joe, that’s good about it too is one way to get through difficult times is to have difficult conversations. I’ll give you an example. When I went into the hospital first time, they all ask you all the questions, and one of the questions they ask is, do you have advanced directives? At that point, we didn’t. We talked about it a little bit, but not much. Most recently when we went in the hospital for my surgery, before we did that, we sat down, we had that conversation, and we filled out the forms so that we both know what I wanted. That’s a difficult conversation, but you have to have it.
I didn’t like it.
Yes, she didn’t like it, I didn’t like it but we both know what we want if we’re ever in that situation. That was hard, I mean, because you’re really looking at yourself and going, hey, I’m not going to live forever, and if I don’t, what do I want to happen? One of the things that I was thinking about during that time when I was in the hospital was how am I going to, how do I want Ellen to go past me? How do I want Ellen to make decisions about me? What do I want her future to be if I’m not going to be there? That was very difficult because I always tell Ellen, I will love her forever and a day. When I was laying in the hospital and in that condition, I didn’t know there’d be another day.
That was hard for me too, because in the beginning he was transported there. Well, he would’ve been transported there by helicopter because he was so ill, but it was actually sleeting. It was December 23rd, 2014, and it was actually sleeting, so we actually went by ambulance and when we got there, they were asking me all these things, and he was pretty much out of it. I was just like, I don’t know. We hadn’t talked about that. We didn’t know this was coming. It was a big wake-up call. You don’t really think about these things until they happen and you don’t think they’re going to happen to you and then they do.
Yes. So then when you think about habits or mindsets or ways that you have adjusted, just the way you think, like what things have you added in or continued doing or that were helpful to help you guys get through this?
That’s a good question.
One of the things we always do, and it’s not something that we added in, it’s just the ability to laugh, the ability to have fun and a joke. If you can’t laugh at yourself and at each other there’s no way to make it through challenging times. A good example is I love to sing.
Oh my goodness, Joe.
So anytime I put my headphones on or my ear pods and I start singing and Ellen’s nearby, I know she’s looking at me and laughing at me, and I look at her and I laugh at myself too, but I did do karaoke one time, and that’s a whole nother story. So you have to be able to —
You will tell that one in the podcast.
You have to be able to adapt. One of the, our go-to comment is YCMTSU, which means you can’t make this stuff up and you can’t. You have to be able to adapt. Life’s unpredictable. Are there ways to get through things? Yes, but it’s like if you plan for A, you know B’S going to happen. If you plan for A and B, you know C’s going to happen. So you need to have a very strong relationship. You need to have very strong values, morals, ways to work with each other to make sure that you can get through whatever those challenges are because you don’t know what that challenge is going to be. I never expected to have that health problem. I expected I’d get hit by a bus while I was running. I never expected that was going to, I was going to have a surgery. So you have to be adaptable. I think some of the other things too is you have to be able to reach out to those people who are close to you. As I said, we had a lot of people who are out there and just knowing that there’s someone else to talk with, to cry with and laugh with made it easier.
I think you have to develop those, I think we’ve been maybe intentional about developing some of those friendships since too. For instance, the very first night Pete got transferred to this hospital that we’re talking about, it’s Penn State Medical Center, one of my former supervises actually lives there, she and her husband is a doctor there, and I was freezing. It was December, and I was cold. It was just incredible. I don’t know how exactly I got ahold of her, I think she found out that I was there and she contacted me and she brought me a sweatshirt and some warm socks and just dropped it off at our hotel. I was just like, that’s just an example of, somebody that came out of the woodwork, of course, knew her.
She’s actually a wonderful therapist in Hershey. I knew her, but I didn’t know that she would help me out like that. So I think being willing to help other people and putting yourselves out for them, you do get return on that, even though that’s not why you do it. Because other people help you too. So I think being intentional about reaching out to communities that understand you will listen to you and that you can help, and that then they will help you as well. That was really crucial in getting through this. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I think it also takes a village to help one through a challenge. We were both fortunate in that we had a supportive family. We don’t have a lot of family, but we had a supportive family and our friend network and our coworkers, As I said, even people that we don’t know, knowing that there were other people around that would listen to us, even if we couldn’t talk to each other in that moment, was really helpful and made it easier.
So are there any other things that, for you, just really were helpful throughout this phase? Or even as you look forward to the coming years that you feel like they ground you, they help you stay mentally healthy or just anything that comes to mind?
Well, I think, Joe, one of the things you can need to continue to do is having those conversations about life in general, planning for the future, talking about what you want to do, where you want to go. We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to travel a lot. We are planning a number of trips this year and next year. What we try to do all the time is make the time to talk about stuff, big stuff, little stuff. Is it time to cut the grass and what are we going to cook for dinner tonight? The ability to continue to have those conversations that you normally have is important. You don’t want to wait until you’re suddenly in a crisis to have conversations about a lot of stuff.
Like I said before, you need to have constant communication. You need to be able to look at each other, tell each other you love each other every day, remind yourself that you’re fortunate to have someone that loves you. I really believe Joe, that if you are fortunate enough to be able to love someone with all your heart and are more fortunate, if that person loves you back the same way, then you’re blessed. I think that’s a key to any long-term relationship.
What I would add to that is that I think you have to be intentional in all of that. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. A good example, yesterday I worked until almost 10 o’clock at night, and of course I’m working in my home because I’m a virtual-only therapist. I went downstairs and I do spend, I’m exhausted, I don’t really want to talk, but we always sit together. We always hold hands or intertwine our feet or something, sit together, we talk a little bit and just making that happen. I don’t go and just hibernate in our bedroom or something. I’m pretty intentional about making sure that we spend some time together every day, even if it’s not having long conversations and so on.
We do have some of that. We try to eat together every night. We don’t succeed in that a hundred percent because of my therapy schedule, but we do it quite a bit. So we try to eat together, we try to do most things together now because I think we’ve learned that that’s our priority. When you make it, but you have to be intentional, when you make it your priority, then it’s easier. You want to do it and it just flows naturally. I think
There’s also a line between spontaneity and routine, and I think you need to go back and forth between those two. Yes, you have a routine, this is how things normally happen, but at the same time, you have to have the spontaneity to go out and say, hey, let’s go somewhere today. Let’s do this today. If you look at that as part of your life, you’re going to be able to really mix and match and have fun.
Wow, thank you so much for sharing your story today and just all your insights and ways that you’re getting through having such major things going on in your marriage and relationship. I just so appreciate the two of you being on the Practice of the Practice podcast today.
Thank you, Joe.
Thank you, Joe.
Well, as I think about just all these different things, especially you’re just growing older, I’m thinking about my parents and my mom was in and out of the hospital for years and my dad was that caregiver, to just think about how at some point I’m going to be more and more in that sandwich generation and then at some point growing old myself and just to think about all these different dynamics and to be learning these things from so many interesting therapists and people that are in my life on this show. I hope you’re getting a lot out of this as well, because this series really has been so invigorating for me to just learn.
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Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for your intro music.
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