Melissa's story

On December 9th, 2008, our lives changed in an instant. I had rushed my mother to the emergency room after her level of confusion became alarming. We received the gut wrenching diagnosis that she had a brain tumor.  Later that week we would find out that it was lung cancer that had metastasized. She had also received a diagnosis of breast cancer earlier that November. So all of a sudden, in a single moment, my vibrant, beautiful, colorful, brilliant artist of a mother was riddled with cancer.

Complete and utter disbelief. Every cell in my body felt the sharpness of our new reality. I fainted.

Our world turned instantly upside down. That disbelief & shock held their ground and then shifted into fear. Fear held on too, but eventually turned to sadness.  Sadness stuck around but turned to anger. The doozy was that at any moment, any one of those feelings would take charge again and spin us around so fast, that we would loose our balance and our breath.

All of the big questions flooded our minds: How, why, when, and what can we do?

For the next year I was my mother’s right hand gal, driving her to Dana Farber and Brigham & Women’s Hospitals for daily radiation and chemo appointments, researching other healing systems, consulting with natural doctors, booking her massage & reiki sessions, making playlists to keep her spirits up during our awful commutes, cooking her meals, forcing her to drink green juice and smoothies packed with cancer killers, encouraging her to make life lists and plan for future trips to her favorite places like Tuscany and the south of France. And eventually bathing her, helping her get dressed, and cleaning up the destruction state that chemo had left her weakened body in. As I look back, I realize that I was somehow taking impeccable care of myself as well:  green juicing/smoothies, working out, walking in the woods, meditating, praying…I had to be at my strongest to bear the load of her grief, anger, sadness, and depression. I see now that I didn’t have time to grieve. I was too busy trying to save her life.

On January 12, 2010 at 5am, after a year and a month of fighting, we lost her.  My best friend, mother, and soul mate was gone from this world.

It’s been 5 years since that day and the disbelief and shock are still present. I still endure moments of crippling sadness and mindblowing anger at the universe. Many days of these past years have been spent in bed with the most debilitating depression of my life. Somehow, someway, I managed to refocus my career sites on wellness, and made it through muscular therapy school, graduating at the top of my class. And I continue to pursue my wellness career with a holistic nutrition program that will be finished in June. Although bits and pieces of the past years are completely blurred, with many details totally erased from my memory, grief’s nasty, slimy claws are slowly releasing their grip on me.

There are the days now of real clarity when I realize that my mother isn’t gone at all, she’s just changed form. And the realization that she left so that I would discover and pursue my true passions in life: wellness, nutrition, healing, helping others relieve their own pain.

Tori's story

I was quite young, twenty-nine, when my father died of liver cancer. We had a lot of unfinished business that I felt compelled to address. In hindsight I think it would have been better if I had just let my father be. If I’d spent time with him, doing things he enjoyed, during the last six months of his life.

The night before his death (in a hospice room with my brother and I) often plays over in my mind, even now, nearly ten years later. My father had been a strong man – the kind to go bodysurfing in a cyclone or calmly drive himself to emergency after tearing his arm to the bone – and fiercely resented the changes to his body. He stayed awake all night, refusing to lie down. We tried to make him comfortable, scratching his back, asking him what he needed, but his mind and body were preparing for his transition: he was muddled, hallucinating a little. It was terribly sad to see him like that, but strangely beautiful too. It allowed us space to care for him.

He finally lay down just after dawn. It wasn't easy, he was scared; we held him, we told him we loved him.

I think I play that night over in my head because I wonder if the outcome could have been different. If I'd done something differently, could we have had a few more minutes with him, a few more hours, years? There is an element of magical thinking at play. But his life was coming to an end no matter what I did; I have to make peace with that, somehow.

I have witnessed a few deaths. I grew up on a farm, I was present when a friend’s father died. I think perhaps every death is different and this is the best advice I can give – to be sensitive to the needs of your loved one, to join them on their journey, and cast your own needs aside.

Following his death, I was able to make choices that felt right for me: my brother and I bathed his body, I played a song at his funeral that my step-mother didn't approve of, and I helped to carry his coffin from the church. I had to do these things to honour my father in ways I couldn’t when he was alive. Like life, death is brief.

Emily's story

These are a few of the things she remembers from the time just before he died and how it affected her. 

'I also did a lot of talking meditations with my dad as he was dying, talking about his favorite places as if we were sitting there together, watching and hearing the fish jump at his favorite trout fishing spot, or lying on the beach under the pohutukawa trees listing to the waves. I think dad liked that. 

It was really amazing because we had the entire family 5 kids, and his brother and his wife in the room with him when he died. All holding him up, touching him and holding him. It was quite amazing. We had had him washed that morning. He did cry as he died - there were tears. He really wasn't ready to give up on his life. Four days before he died he had given a speech to over 400 people at the dedication ceremony of the new "Mike Cormack suite" at Eden park. He was absolutely holding on for that. After that he went to bed and did not get up again (except weirdly to check his emails once!! when i asked him what he was doing he said 'just keeping up with things kiddo!"). 

One thing i learnt on a physical level was how it affected my breast milk. Grief causes the release of cortisol which travels to the breast milk and hence gave me  a very wired baby - which was pretty stressful on top of everything!

I also replayed the death scene in all its traumatic details over and over whenever my mind wasn't occupied for nearly six months after the death. It was as if my mind was trying and trying to make sense of the entire experience. But I just kept meeting a dead end. It was very traumatic, as I relived it involuntarily over and over and over. 

On a practical note, I wrote a list of questions to ask dad and over the year that he was dying I gradually asked him. And eventually got all my answers - often in his cryptic way.