I was a stay at home mom with my three children when my only daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed with high-risk medulloblastoma in 2007. My husband Bill took care of our boys, the home front and his business while I primarily cared for Hannah at Seattle Children’s Hospital or at home when she was recovering. We believed that Hannah had beat the cancer after receiving “the strongest and all available treatment modalities”, until the cancer suddenly reappeared three months after treatment was completed, despite the fact that she was asymptomatic. Further standard and unproven treatments were tried in the next year, but they could not stop the progression of the cancer, and Hannah died 15 months later at home. The next couple of years were a very dark time for me when I wondered how I could live without my daughter. Finally, especially with the support of friends and family, light has returned to my life. I will continue to support pediatric cancer research through “Hannah’s Hopeful Hearts” events to further the work of Dr. Jim Olson and his Project Violet team. I have begun to partner with others whom are grieving through our local “Compassionate Companions” program. And I am currently resuming a part-time astrology practice and writing two books as a tribute to my daughter. I hope to self-publish one of these books, “A Soul Lives On”, in 2020.
When my twelve-year-old daughter Hannah died, I wasn’t sure that I would survive. She was our youngest child, our only daughter, and we were extremely close. When Hannah was diagnosed with high-risk brain cancer at age nine, I had an intuition that I would lose her. Accompanying her through horrific and barbaric brain cancer treatment was nearly too much to witness, but we felt it was worth it if it meant she would be cured. Eighteen months from diagnosis when Hannah’s cancer returned, and we knew at that point it was a death sentence, we were devastated. She had suffered in such unimaginable ways, and now it seemed utterly unfair that she wouldn’t survive the cancer. Most of all, I couldn’t imagine my life without my daughter, and she couldn’t imagine leaving her family.
But when I lay with Hannah on her bed in the last days of her life here, I began to look at her as more than my daughter. I started to see her as a soul that had come into our family to learn and experience certain things, and now that she had done those things, no longer needed to stay. Perhaps it was self-protection as I was preparing to lose Hannah. In my heart, I wondered how I would survive without her, but in my head, I knew that there had been a greater purpose to her life.
When Hannah finally took her last breath, I wasn’t feeling all that spiritual. I lay with her body in bed for hours, sobbing and in disbelief. At that moment, unable to see the spiritual lessons or purpose in her too-short life, all I could do was grieve for my beloved daughter. Even though we had anticipated Hannah’s death for weeks, I struggled to accept that Hannah was physically gone from our lives. After my husband, Hannah’s dad, her brothers and family members said goodbye, I was left alone with Hannah. It was helpful to take the rest of the day to not rush to say goodby, to cry, to light candles, to bathe and dress her body one more time and to talk with her by myself. I had brought this child into the world, and I wanted to be the last one to spend time with her.
When Hannah died, the heart-wrenching sadness was oddly mixed with relief — relief that her suffering and ours was over. I had been so consumed with her care for the past three years that in these first days and weeks without her, I allowed myself to finally do nothing. I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
The days and weeks following Hannah’s death are mostly a blur. Initially I just wanted to be alone. I found comfort in taking long walks in the forest with my dogs, journaling, listening to soothing meditation tapes, numbing out in front of the TV and sitting quietly alone outdoors. Looking at pictures from her life, reliving final moments or reading sympathy cards from her memorial service were almost too painful in those early days. So too was being surrounded by too many people. I was most comfortable spending time with my husband, my sons, my very closest friends or alone.
Before I knew it, in the coming weeks and months, I found myself surrounded by women who had also lost children either through accident or illness. These bereaved moms became my lifelines. I actually believed Hannah was sending me these women, most of whom I didn’t know well or at all before she died, to comfort me in my grief. As one person said to me, “Only someone who has been through it or is going through it will know exactly how you feel.”
I leaned hard on these bereaved moms for support and comfort, especially the ones who had been without their children the longest. I didn’t always feel like accepting an invitation to meet, but I always felt better after we did. I’m also grateful that my oldest and closest friends never left my side during Hannah’s illness or after her death. I have often said, I would not still be standing or breathing were it not for the women in my life.
Quiet, nature, solitude, loving friends and family got me through those early days.
It’s taken me years to make peace with Hannah’s death. In those early days, all I could see and feel was darkness. But slowly, hope and light have returned to my soul, and I know what has helped. I know that I have great support, starting with a committed husband who’s walked with me through one crisis after another. We’re one of those “lucky” married couples who have stayed together after the loss of our child. I attribute counseling with our hospice social worker, along with respecting that my husband and I grieved in our own way and on our own time lines, to the continuation of our 29 year marriage. I am blessed with loving friends, including those bereaved moms, with whom I can be myself and who support me through trials and triumphs, reminding me that there’s a reason I’m still alive. I have wonderful mentors who have lit my way to a new life, reminding me that my work here is still unfinished. I have grown sons and now grandchildren to watch grow and support. And I have a survival instinct that seems to have surpassed what my heart desired when my daughter died nine years ago. But ultimately, I believe it’s Hannah’s love that has carried me through. I couldn’t have known this peace in the beginning, and I certainly couldn’t have survived alone.
It’s been a struggle, but I absolutely know that Hannah would not have wanted her death to be the end of me nor the end of our marriage. The hole she left in my heart is still there but less pronounced. Now I have to trust that Hannah is there for me on a spiritual level, just as I knew when she was dying that there was a greater purpose to her life. It’s easier now for me to accept that Hannah is still alive in spirit, even when I miss holding her hand on earth and watching her grow up. I’m thankful that she trusted our family and me with her life. I know that I am blessed to be her mother, to be loved by her and to continue to be graced with her gifts.