Making Friends with My Grief

Making Friends with My Grief

What was my grandpa like?

I wasn’t expecting the question. I paused the TV and thought a moment. It occurred to me that I haven’t told her much about my father. He died from cancer before she was born. The proximity of his death to my own cancer diagnosis made it even harder to talk about.

I told her about how he always laughed at his own jokes, that his belly laugh made his whole body bounce up and down. And if he was sitting, his feet stuck straight out in front of him for the duration of the laugh.

I told her about how he loved to play guitar and sing to us, and he made up the most ridiculous songs.

I told her how he was often considered the smartest person in whatever room he was in.

I told her how we used to tease him about being short, and how he would tell his friends I was 4’20” rather than an inch taller than him.

I told her how he embraced our interests, how he dove in head first to whatever we were doing. When we got into theater, he memorized Shakespeare right along side us. When we played soccer, he trained to become a linesman. After my brother married a woman from Russia, my dad learned to speak Russian. He was all in.

I told her how he loved sports, how when I went home for a visit in ’99 I found him in his ref uniform watching the US Women’s team trounce China in the World Cup. I watched him flash a yellow card at China on the TV.

I told her how he was one of the Palmer High School football team’s most loyal supporters. Long after all his kids had graduated high school, he was still the keeper of the Moose Gooser, a cannon fired each time the Palmer Moose scored. He even took that cannon to away games.

She asked me if her grandpa would have liked her. “Oh, my, yes,” I said. “He would have loved you. He would have enjoyed your wit and your laugh. He would have loved playing chess with you. He would have loved that you’re learning French and Russian. He would have marveled at the amazing young woman you are growing into.”

My dad cared deeply about a number of things, threw his energy into a lot of things, but I suspect that, out of everything, being a grandpa was his favorite.

My girl and I laughed and cried at the stories. She snuggled and held me tight. We both grieved his loss and the fact that they never met. But mostly, we experienced my Dad.

She wanted to know how he died, and I told her about how his friends came over with banjos and guitars and played the bluegrass music he loved so much. I told her about how they played “I’ll fly away,” and how that song was even more special at that moment.

I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away, in the morning when I die, hallelujah by and by I’ll fly away

Then when his friends said goodbye, he got tired and went to sleep with my mom and brother sitting by his side. In the morning, he flew away.

Sharing this moment was a gift for both my daughter and I. We haven’t talked a lot about death or grieving, and this opened the door for some deeper conversation. This process was healing for me too. I’d forgotten how it can feel good to talk about someone you lost.

My father has been gone for 14 years, but for a few moments last night, he was right there with us. I felt like, in a way, I got to introduce them to each other.

The grief of losing him is still there, but it’s different now. The time helps, the talking helps, too. The grief is something that I carry forward with me. It has helped shape me. I’ve grown since his death, and that grief was a part of the growth. I would be a different person without it.

That’s not something I would have been able to hear or contemplate shortly after his death, and please don’t say that to anyone in the early stages of their grief.

I shed many tears last night. I cried again after G went to bed. I do miss my dad, I miss the relationships we might have had. But the tears were bigger than sadness. There’s beauty in this story. I experienced a sense of awe when sharing this story with my daughter. It was moving, it was deep, it was the same kind of tears we experience when watching a masterful performance, or viewing great art, or hearing a story of profound kindness. It was healing and transcendent. I’m not done grieving my father, that’s not something you finish. But I’m no longer afraid of the grief. I’m making friends with it, and that starts with talking about my dad.

A conversation with my daughter about the grandfather she never met helped us both heal.
How to help kids cope with a parent’s cancer: interview with an oncology social worker

How to help kids cope with a parent’s cancer: interview with an oncology social worker

What’s going to happen to my baby?

The first thing I thought when I was diagnosed with breast cancer was what’s going to happen to my baby? I’m not alone in that thought, I’ve discussed the topic at length with my friends who are also juggling child rearing with cancer treatment.

And it does impact the kids, but there are ways to help our kids cope with a parent’s cancer.

Interview with a Social Worker

Michelle Massey runs the Camp Sparkle and Small Talk programs at Gilda’s Club in Seattle. [Updated to note that the former Gilda’s Club in Seattle is now operating independently- although maintaining the same mission – and goes by the name Cancer Pathways.] She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Board Certified Oncology Social Worker.  She got her start at Children’s Hospital working with kids with cancer, where she started to notice that the siblings needed some attention, too. Now her work focuses on the children of cancer patients.

We sat down at her kitchen table to discuss how kids are impacted by their parent’s cancer, and what we can do to help.  She was very clear in making the point that if a parent has cancer, the kids are affected. They might not show it. They might be perfect little angels because they don’t want to be a burden, but that doesn’t mean that they are not affected.

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Kids are by nature ego-centric.

There is nothing wrong with this, it is part of our developmental process, and hopefully, we grow out of that perspective. But it’s important to remember the eco-centric perspective when working with children who are dealing with their parent’s cancer. When they think the world revolves around them, then they naturally think they have an impact on everything that happens. That means when a parent gets cancer, they think it has something to do with them. It’s the same reason kids think it’s their fault if their parent’s get a divorce.

childs concern

The ego-centric perspective also means that the child’s biggest concern is “what is going to happen to me?” They are concerned about the well-being of their parent, but even more so, they want to know that whatever happens, someone is going to know that they like their peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into triangles, and which songs to sing as they tuck them in at night. Fear of abandonment is a normal reaction to this situation.

It is important to understand that a child’s anxiety around a parent’s cancer is an appropriate reaction, and not a sign of mental illness. Counseling and group therapy sessions can help kids develop the tools they need to weather the ups and downs of their parent’s cancer treatment. Additionally, this is not likely to be the last challenge in the child’s life, so the tools learned in counseling will be of lifelong benefit.

Group activities that involve other kids whose parents have cancer is also beneficial in that it provides an environment where the kids can feel normal. They don’t have to feel weird because everyone has cancer in their home.

I asked Michelle what specific advice she would give to parents who have cancer, and these were her suggestions:

How to help kids cope when a parent has cancer

  • Make sure your kids have an outlet for their feelings, even the “ugly” feelings – a safe place where they can talk about what’s going through their head without being shut down. (Counseling and group therapy are great for this)
  • If you do get a counseling for your kids, trust and confidentiality are of the utmost importance. The child needs to be able to say those things they’re afraid might hurt their parent’s feelings.
  • Allow them to feel their emotions rather than brushing them away.
  • Don’t try to fix everything. You can’t fix their emotions.
  • Ask them specifically what they are afraid of, the fear may take on different nuances at different times, and that will change the conversation.

The Camp Sparkle and Small Talk programs mentioned above are at Gilda’s Club Seattle. There are Gilda’s Clubs around the country, and while the specific offerings at each location may vary, the programs are available to cancer patients and their family members at no charge.

Michelle also works with young women with breast cancer, formerly serving as a meeting facilitator for the Young Survival Coalition.

You can find more on the How to Juggle Cancer and Parenting Series here:

Camp Sparkle

Camp Sparkle

gilda radner red door - camp sparkle

On the corner of Broadway and Union, on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, sits an old brick building with a red door, and four stately white columns in front. Magic happens in this building.

This building is the home of Gilda’s Club Seattle, and Camp Sparkle.

When Gilda Radner was diagnosed with cancer, she learned first hand how lonely cancer can be. Gilda’s Club was created so no one else would have to go through the cancer experience alone.

Gilda’s Club is not just for the cancer patient, but their family members and close friends as well. A cancer diagnosis impacts the whole family. We all need a place where we can be ourselves, and it feels good to have a place where we feel normal, where others understand what we are going through. Gilda’s Club does this with support groups, lectures, and other helpful events for people with cancer and their loved ones.

Camp Sparkle

Camp Sparkle is one of the ways that Gilda’s Club helps the children of cancer patients.

Sometimes, the world turns upside down when Mom or Dad is diagnosed with cancer, or even dies from cancer. This is complicated when adults reflexively avoid conversations about cancer, life and death, or deep issues are distilled into platitudes that are more dismissive than helpful.

Camp Sparkle provides a safe environment for kids to talk about cancer, and helps provide kids with a toolbox of skills to name and discuss their feelings and to deal with this and other challenges life will throw at them.

And Camp Sparkle is FUN!

Camp Sparkle 2014 Gildas Club Seattle

My girl turned 5 a few months ago, so this year she was old enough to go to Camp Sparkle. She had so much fun. She came home with piles of artwork each day of the week, and at the end of the week she brought home a journal. She went on a field trip every day. She made new friends, learned about compassion, and respect, and self care. And I am so impressed with the questions she’s been asking since camp. Thoughtful questions about things it never occurred to me to bring up with her.

She’s a happy camper, and I’m so glad she got to go to Camp Sparkle.

Gilda’s Club has clubhouses across the country, and Camp Sparkle is free for the children of all Gilda’s Club members, ages 5-18.

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You can find more on the How to Juggle Cancer and Parenting Series here:

manage cancer and parenting
Still standing

Still standing

battered butterfly - CoffeeJitters.Net

Inspired by a butterfly.

February was a difficult month. We moved, which is always stressful, and then there was all the homework for school, and all that was compounded by my illness and two hospitalizations during the month. My mom ended up coming out for a couple weeks, and that was a big help. Now, we are completely out of the old place now, and I just have to unpack at the new place. I’ll be tackling that chore at a much slower pace.

In the meantime, I’m feeling much better now, and we love love love our new Seattle neighborhood. We’ve had a blast spending the last few days exploring. Now that we survived the move, I can see that this new place will be a good change for us. We’ve already made a few new friends 🙂

Four years… and a shark

Four years… and a shark

I spent the night in the ER last week. I wasn’t a big deal, just a recurring issue that’s a side-effect of a side-effect of my cancer treatment. It’s starting to feel a little routine.

This time it was a little different, though.

For one thing, the hospital was over-full. This hospital that I usually rave about, got less than high marks from me this time. When I was finally admitted, they put me in the over-flow of the patient over-flow area: pre-op. That was all fine and dandy from 2am when I finally got the room, till 5am when the surgical patients started showing up. Then the constant noise, the fact that the kitchen could never seem to find me to deliver my meals, the lack of a phone (and my cell phone died), the lack of a tv, and the persistent sound of various people vomiting started to get to me. A little. Maybe a lot. But, I was checked out by that evening, so I didn’t have to deal with it for more than a day. And I’m just fine now.

But, I diverted my attention by focusing on something else. It was four years to the day from the night my daughter was born. I went in to the ER just about the same time I arrived at this same hospital four years earlier. With no tv, and plenty of chaos to try to block out of my awareness, I passed the time remembering my daughter’s birth. What an amazing experience. And, I was released from the hospital in time to give my newly-minted 4-year-old a big hug on her birthday.

I’ve spent the rest of the week reminiscing about the past four years with my little girl, and I came across this picture of her baby shark costume from her first Halloween.

baby shark costume - CoffeeJitters.NetHmmm… maybe this sheds a little light on her current shark obsession. 🙂
You can learn more about my cancer story here:

my cancer story | Judy Schwartz Haley


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In the moment

In the moment

We spent the sunny Saturday afternoon traipsing around town, when my daughter was inspired into her own impromptu dance recital in front of this mural.


She had no idea that it was the third anniversary of the day my life was turned upside down – the cancer diagnosis. She just grabbed the moment and savored it, so I did as well.


I find it interesting how this anniversary hits me differently each year. Last year, I forgot entirely. But then, I was in a good place.

This year I’ve had a tougher time, and the cancer is on my mind much more regularly. My recent reconstruction surgery plays into that, of course, and my Granny died, and another dear friend just went into hospice.


Cancer does funny things to our heads. A friend, also a survivor, just noted the milestone of experiencing a symptom and not automatically thinking cancer first. We can be fine one day, and the next, unable to ignore the way cancer messed with every single aspect of our lives, from finances and credit ratings and careers, to simple daily frustrations like the day you don’t have the strength to get up and parent a child with patience and presence, and have to yell from the couch across the room. I never wanted to be that mom.


But I’m getting stronger again, and when my strength improves, my attitude does as well.

A little extra daylight may just help a bit, too.


It helps to spend my days with a bouncy, talkative, 40-pound attitude adjuster.


And who could stay in a bad mood around spontaneous dancing like this?


Sometimes. you just gotta dance.

You can learn more about my cancer story here:

my cancer story | Judy Schwartz Haley