By Shelley Friend

In case your holiday isn’t Merry and Bright…

People experience grief on an ongoing basis, however, it often seems more overwhelming during a special time of the year (Christmas, Easter, a birthday or anniversary.) When facing a loss or potential loss, embrace your personal support system. Here’s how my support system helped me.

About a year ago, my brother received the diagnosis none of us ever want….Stage IV Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer. We knew from that day that he had some tough decisions.  Because he has two children in college, he decided to fight, and fight hard. Watching him undergo the ravages of chemotherapy was gut wrenching, but he kept fighting, trying everything he could do to survive to be there for his children.

My sister and brother-in-law, who live closer to MD Anderson than I do, invited him into their home and truly were angels on earth. They dedicated the entire year to doing whatever he needed. It was agonizing, watching them navigate through those mirky waters, knowing the very likely outcome.

I drove in monthly to give them some relief, usually for a few days, sometimes for a week, so they could actually go somewhere. At the end, they invited me to move into their home, too, to assist with the day-to-day care. He passed peacefully in late September after a noble battle with a relentless enemy. They are all Iron Butterflies because they all did the hard things, with love in their heart.

Since I live four hours away, I was not able to be there as often as I wanted. And, I knew I needed help. It was a scary thought that my brother was so ill and that my sister and brother-in-law were exhausted from caregiving.

Caregivers need caregiving, too!

I knew I had to seek help, so I surrounded myself with people I call my Grief Community.  Some, I paid, most I didn’t. These are the people who were on the front lines with me, almost every day.

  1. My friend, the survivor-I have a dear friend, a cancer survivor, who called me several times a week to ask about me and my family. She has a remarkable memory and texted me on days Jed had chemo, or any other procedures. She sent me “thinking of you” cards, and even funny cards. She even texted me on the morning he died, not knowing he died, just to send her love.
  2. My charming friend-a dear friend gave me a charm with three angels in it. I held it tightly, especially at the end. She checked on me often and always was willing to listen when I needed to talk, scream or cry, which I did. She has had several losses in her family, so she knew exactly what I was experiencing.
  3. My walking buddies-I am fortunate enough to have a walking group in my neighborhood. They let me talk while we walked through this difficult year. One, especially, who has had a great number of losses in her life, including a family member with pancreatic cancer, held my hand all year long. She texted and checked up on me often, sending me regular prayers.
  4. My hairdresser-In my experience it helps to have a great hairdresser on good days. This year was especially HAIRowing! All my siblings and my brother-in-law all gray. Jed was not gray until it started growing in after chemotherapy. Older than all of them, I decided it was time to stop coloring my hair and knew my transition would be difficult, but not nearly as hard as undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. (I’ll write that story next year.) My “hairapist” is not only a wonderful listener, she has become a dear friend. She listened with no judgment to my never-ending fears, and I knew at the end of my appointment, at the very least, I had a good haircut.
  5. My gym friends-I usually go to the gym every day I’m in town. There are women who greet me every day with warmth and kindness. And, hugs, lots of hugs. Going to the gym being surrounded by others working on their health goals, I was able to keep up my physical strength to be emotionally, if not physically, available for my family.
  6. BLE Friends-I read the book Bright Line Eating, by Susan Peirce Thompson, several years ago and knew it was the program for me. Through BLE, I’ve made several very special friends. Even though we’ve never met in person, we know each other very well. They checked on me to make sure I was eating in a healthy way. Most of them have been through so much, too, yet they always found time to call, text, send a card or send a Marco Polo to check on me.
  7. Long-time friends-I’ve known these dear friends for a long time. Many visited, called frequently, sent books and cards, because we’ve been there for each other. When they talk, I listen, when I talk, they listen, because we have deep friendships.
  8. My friend at the library-I happened to call the library one day with a question about the technology. Lucky for me, the woman who answered the phone was wonderful. After helping me access the app, she also gave me a list of healing books. And, as it turns out, she has lost two brothers in the past few years. We shared our grief story and she is so compassionate and kind and gave me a powerful sense of hope.
  9. Therapist-I have had a therapist since the age of 14. I wrote about it This year, I had weekly appointments to have an emotional outlet. Watching someone die, even from a distance, brings up unimaginable issues, some that have nothing to do with the dying person.
  10. Priests-I met with two priests at my Episcopal church, who helped guide me this year. One came to my house several times and one I visited in the church or talked on the phone many times. He texted me regularly just to check in. He suggested I write a letter to my brother months before he died, just for the practice of writing out my fears and concerns. Of course, the letter was TO him, but it was FOR me. I didn’t need to send it, I just needed to write it. We are still meeting with him as we navigate the next part of our lives.
  11. Spiritual Director-I learned about my Spiritual Director through friends. This woman was educated at the seminary but is not ordained. I meet with her monthly and she gives me spiritual practices to try and a list of books to read. The discipline of practicing prayers, meditation, writing down thoughts, etc., not only has given me something to do, it actually had some very concrete outcomes.
  12. Kate Bowler-I’ve never met Kate Bowler, yet I consider her part of my Grief Community. She has been living with cancer for several years and wrote the book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, among others. Her podcast, Everything Happens, delves into what people are really feeling. As a professor at Duke Divinity School, her depth of understanding of connecting what we are feeling to the Divine is unmatched, in my opinion. She offers blessings that touch the core of what I was feeling.
  13. Husband, Adult Children and Mariposa, our rescue cocker spaniel-I could not have made it without the support of my husband, daughters and their husbands, children and our precious Mariposa. Our daily discussions and love saved my sanity. Months before my brother’s diagnosis, I had one birthday wish. I decided I needed to laugh more so I asked to receive a joke every day. All the adults took one day (my husband took two) and our older grandson took Fridays. Every day for a year, I received memes, TikToks, Instagram posts, etc., to brighten my spirits. I loved them all, but my favorite, of course, was Friday. Hearing our third grader call me on the way to school and say “JOKE DAY” just made everything beautiful again. Then, he’d proceed to tell me a joke, some of which he made up on the spot! Those are treasured moments.
  14. My sister and brother-in-law-I only have one sister, and can’t imagine living one day without talking to her. While she and her husband dedicated their entire lives to helping my brother, they also made room in their hearts to help me. My brother-in-law always had fresh food for me to eat whenever I was there. And, he created special meals just for me. Nobody makes a better ratatouille, or three different types of tofu. He even waited up for me until 2:00 in the morning when I went to the ER with my brother.

It’s hard to watch someone suffer. It’s hard to watch someone you love watch someone suffer. And, it’s uncomfortable to talk about suffering because it’s hard to know what to say. (You can expect a story on this next year.)

People are busy. People have weddings and babies. People work. People have their own lives and are trying to stay healthy, keep their families safe, and to work or serve their communities. And, many are supporting other friends and family members going through difficult illnesses and life challenges.

Sometimes, it becomes overwhelming to keep up with all the diseases, aches and pains, divorces, deaths, fears, worries, stresses and concerns of all the people in your life. I understand. It’s exhausting.

I learned there are hundreds more people who love me. And, I feel that love, which makes the dark days brighter.

Shelley grew up in Liberty, Texas and now lives in Austin. Fortunately, she had supportive grandparents, siblings, family, friends and, acquaintances, as well as neighbors, teachers and faith to help her grow and thrive after the loss of her mother, at age 14.

She received her degrees in Public Policy and Communication from The University of Texas and The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She worked in government and has taught Organizational, Intercultural, Interpersonal and Group Communication, Leadership and Public Speaking on the university and college level for many years. She studied Intercultural Communication as part of the Fulbright Program in Bulgaria. Then, she and a colleague taught Intercultural Communication and Cooperative Learning to participants from all over the world in the Fulbright International Summer Institute, also in Bulgaria. She taught speech communication and leadership on the university and college level for most of her career as well as served as a communication consultant for many organizations.

She married her college sweetheart, Travis Kessler, and they have two smart, strong, beautiful, successful and loving daughters, who married two creative, supportive, strong and loving men. Their first grandson, Thomas, makes the world a better place through the twinkle in his eye and his innate curiosity about anything related to animals and sports.  They have precious granddaughter, Emilia, who is four. She is a bubbly bundle of beauty and joy and has her great grandmother’s sense of humor. Finally, Thomas has one brother, Charlie, who is almost four. He’s the most outgoing of anyone in the family, we think he’s going to be mayor by the time he’s in kindergarten! And, our caboose is Oliver Bexar, we all him Bexar (pronounced Bear.) He’s fascinated by the world around him and he and his sister Emilia are learning Spanish in their preschool.

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