Coping with the Loss of an American Music Legend
- Fiona Whelan Prine, widow of folk-music legend John Prine, recently opened up to Southern Living about her late husband’s legacy.
- John Prine had two separate battles with cancer, and he survived both. He died of COVID-19 at the age of 73 on April 7, 2020.
- Losing a spouse to cancer can cause immeasurable pain, but it’s important to try to have uncomfortable conversations with your loved one – if they’re open to it – during their cancer battle.
John lost his battle to COVID-19 on April 7, 2020, at the age of 73. Later this week, on Oct. 10, the “Mark Twain of folk music” – as he was often called – would have turned 75. In honor of his upcoming birthday, his widow Fiona Whelan Prine sat down for a Biscuits & Jam podcast episode with Southern Living‘s Sid Evans. A big topic of conversation for the podcast was how the world, and his beloved wife, felt when John left.Read More
“It was overwhelming at times, the reaction from friends and fans and family around the world,” she said. “But obviously, since that time, we have really started to – a little bit – understand just the depth of connection that he had to so many people in our world, within the music industry, within singer/songwriters, musicians from all walks of life, and then people.”
Fiona said her family received letters from all over the world – Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Ireland – expressing how much they missed the late singer. The massive outpouring of love she felt from fans and friends helped her cope with the loss.
“I’m not even sure that I have language yet to describe it but it has kept us going,” she said. “It has kept us busy. It has kept us engaged with John’s legacy, with all of the wonderful songs that he left for us to work with. It has left us a community – and friendships beyond anything we could have imagined… It’s been overwhelming but in the most beautiful way.”
Thankfully, John left fans and loved ones alike with tunes that touched people from all different walks of life. His last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, was even nominated for Best Americana Album at the 2018 Grammys. On the Biscuits & Jam podcast, Fiona talked about this album and one song with an almost clairvoyant message: When I Get to Heaven. She said she was stunned when she first heard the tune.
“You know, John had had a lot of health issues,” she said. “He was taking care of himself and he and I, together, we visited more doctors than we did ‘meat and three’s,’ I’ll tell ya that Sid… I heard the verses, and it just became more and more revealing, but it ended up being so joyful.
“There was nothing that was going to scare him, and he found a way to protect himself from even the most difficult things in life… I don’t know that John had any inclination that he was, well he certainly wasn’t unwell because he’d had a recent checkup and was doing absolutely fine, but did he know more than we knew? I don’t know, but what I do know is that he would definitely not have known when he was going to make his next record.”
Fiona says she thinks about that album a lot and what his thoughts might’ve been as he carefully crafted it. But despite being pretty sure his death “happened quicker than he anticipated,” Fiona knows the album and its songs capture an honest final portrayal of the musician she loved.
“He was probably thinking to himself, ‘I’m gonna tour’ – well I know ’cause he told me – ‘I’ll tour it, but then we’re gonna take a lot of time off,'” she said. “I mean [When I Get to Heaven] was such a joyful song and such a confirmation to me on John’s entire outlook on life and on death. He had the same outlook.”
John Prine’s Cancer Battles
John Prine’s cancer journey first began in 1995 when he noticed a lump on the right side of his neck. The following year, he brought it up to a doctor who felt it didn’t raise any cause for concern. Then, a year after that, John decided to have the painless lump removed only to discover that it was squamous cell carcinoma during the standard pre-surgery biopsy, according to a profile on the Oral Cancer Foundation website.
He had surgery to remove the tumor in January 1998, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. Doctors initially thought to prioritize saving his vocal chords from any radiation-related damage, but John’s main priority was to focus on beating the cancer rather than preserving his voice.
“It’s been almost a year since the surgery and radiation and I’m feelin’ great,” Prine wrote to his fans. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and singing my songs. Hopefully, my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders.”
Then, in November 2013, John announced another diagnosis that was unrelated to his first bout with cancer – non-small cell carcinoma, an operable form of lung cancer. Thankfully, his Nashville-based doctors caught the disease early and John was confident in a full recovery.
Following lung cancer surgery, John worked to restore his lung capacity and get back to doing what he loved most: performing.
“Luckily, I had a friend who was a trainer,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. “When I told him I had to get the surgery, he volunteered to come to our house and help me get back in shape to get on the road. He had me running up and down our staircase three times… Then he’d put a guitar around my neck, and I’d sing three songs without taking a breath.
“And this was all after losing half a lung. And that – I didn’t know I could train like that. My wife didn’t, either, because I hadn’t previously put that much into training before.”
Prine continued to perform up until just before he died. He played Bonnaroo in 2019 and attended the Grammys in January 2020. At the Grammys, Bonnie Raitt, who turned his song Angel From Montgomery into a hit, honored him for his Lifetime Achievement Award in songwriting. A fitting final awards show for one of the most legendary American songwriters of all time.
Losing a Loved One to Cancer
Losing a loved one to cancer can cause immeasurable pain – as Fiona Whelan Prine can surely attest to. And while it’s hard to imagine life without someone like your significant other, it can be important to have hard conversations with your loved one if both parties are willing to talk.
No one knows this better than John Duberstein who lost his wife, writer Nina Riggs, to metastatic triple negative breast cancer. He previously told SurvivorNet that all he wished for while she was suffering was for things to go back to the way they were – but Nina had already accepted her new normal.
“I really wanted things to go back to normal, whatever that meant,” John said. “She was not for that. She wanted to embrace the existence that she had, even before she knew she was going to die imminently. I did not want to talk about what was going to happen with me after Nina died. Nina is the one that really brought it up, she brought it up a number of times. She wanted to make sure that I knew that it was OK … she really wanted me to have another relationship after she was gone.”
John said that even with the pain of losing Nina, and even though he didn’t want to talk about it at the time, he’s so glad that his wife started those seemingly uncomfortable conversations.
“In retrospect, I can’t even explain how glad I am that I had that,” John said. “And I think, across the board, the people who have had those conversations who I know who have lost a spouse are immeasurably glad that they did.”
Remembering all the wonderful ways the person you’ve lost enriched your life can also help you move forward. For Fiona, one of the lovely memories she keeps of her husband is singing with him.
“I was much better singing at home than I ever was on stage, and we loved to listen to music and sing in the car,” she said. “We did that for sure. And, you know, we started that from the first month we met. We had the exact same taste in music. I knew all the country songs, and then he loved Van Morrison.”
Caleb Farley also knows what it’s like to remember the impact a loved one had on your life. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Farley talked about his mother’s battle with breast cancer. He also discussed how he opted out of his position as a cornerback for the Virginia Tech Hokies due to COVID-19 concerns. Having lost his mom to breast cancer in 2018, he knew he wanted to be extra careful during the pandemic.
Farley announced the news of his opt-out in an Instagram video saying, in part, “I cannot afford to lose another parent or loved one… Though the competitor in me badly wants to play this season, I cannot ignore what’s going on in my heart, and I must make the decision that brings me the most peace.”
Farley trained for the NFL draft instead of playing for Virginia Tech, and his efforts paid off. He was selected by the Tennessee Titans as the number 22 overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.
Farley’s mother fought two battles with cancer. He watched as she went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy while still working and taking care of her family. Although his “superhero” mother will not get to see him play in the NFL, Farley will take many lessons he learned from her and apply them to whatever challenges he faces in life moving forward.
“My mother raised me to be very religious, very God-conscious. That’s been everything to me, and my life. That’s like the building blocks of my, of my life,” Farley told SurvivorNet. “Anything that’s happened to me, any adversity, any good times, any bad times, I’ve always kind of stood on that rock of faith. I can’t thank her enough for how she raised me and because it was her who gave me all of that, um, spiritually, she, she just filled my heart with love and joy. I’ve had a happy life because of her.”