In 2005, my life changed forever.
My 3-year-old daughter, Kenzie and I were both diagnosed with aggressive cancers. Tragically, Kenzie died at the end of that year.
Over the past 15 years since Kenzie died, my life and health have continued to be eventful. My body has continued to malfunction at a great rate of knots. So much so, I’m now living with Parkinson’s disease, I have a chronic degenerative heart condition which is leading me into heart failure, I have endured 10 surgeries for numerous issues, some stemming from complications from my original breast cancer. All of this on top of surviving breast cancer and losing Kenzie to cancer.
Life has been a bit of a cruel taskmaster.
All these experiences of grief and loss have taught me invaluable lessons in resilience. You see, resilience is not something we are born with. It’s something that we can learn. Yes, your personality does influence how you face and respond to life events, but you can leverage these to your advantage.
For example, I’ve always been very self-reliant and was self-aware about what helped me deal with stressors in life. I loved my sport, but not a team sport. I liked solitary sports, like swimming, cycling, running, scuba diving … they were meditative, it was my time to think, clear my head, be among nature. I found it calming and therapeutic.
So, when cancer then grief exploded into my life and left it shattered, I turned to what I knew to bring me solace and to help calm the storm in my heart and mind; sport and nature.
Though I knew I could not manage the magnitude of this loss on my own. I needed my family, friends and community. But traumatic grief is too big for them alone. You need someone to steady the ship, to guide you safely through the storm.
Nic Russell with Conor (L) and Kenzie (R) in 2005
They say angels walk among us, and I can verify this is true. My angel came in the form of an amazing psychotherapist, Maxine Burgen Paige. Max had a small foundation, which enabled her to see me at no charge. It was a lifesaver, as I certainly could not have afforded therapy. I was a single mum with very little in the way of resources or disposable income, but therapy was something I desperately needed. Max gave me the strength of resilience to enable me to rebuild my shattered life. I can safely say, I would not be here today if it was not for Max.
It was Max’s gift to me that inspired me to set up Kenzie’s Gift, a charity that supports the mental health of children and families facing serious illness or grief, www.kenziesgift.com.
I wanted to pay the kindness forward that Max had shown to me. I wanted to ensure that young Kiwis and their families had mental health support to rebuild their shattered lives after a serious illness or a traumatic loss. I wanted them to be able to access resources and professional help with registered mental health professionals if they needed it.
You see, time does not ease the pain of grief. Instead, the pain changes and life grows around your grief.
Life grows around your grief
As time marches on, the initial acute pain of grief morphs into a chronic pain that you know is always there. I remember the rawness of those early days, I can only describe it as hell on earth, the pain was excruciating. It was overwhelming and I think I was in a state of shock. Questions ran through my mind…had this really happened…it couldn’t be true…this isn’t what life is supposed to be…this wasn’t part of the plan.
The reality was, this was a life-changing event, one that would irrevocably change and shape my life and that of my son, Conor.
To cope with the rawness of grief, I had to be busy; I couldn’t sit alone with my thoughts. During the day was fine, but the nights were the worst. My mind would race at a million miles an hour and I’d be overwhelmed with the magnitude of my loss. When sleep did come, dreams of Kenzie were vivid and sometimes I’d even wake thinking it had all been a nightmare. Then the reality would hit, it was not a nightmare. It was my life.
At times if it all became too much and the tears would not stop, I would actually put on a DVD of Billy Connolly as I knew he would make me laugh and the tears would stop falling. To this day, stand up comedy has become a major tonic for Conor and me.
In that first year, I threw myself more and more into activities that would keep me focused. Raising Conor, going back to university, being involved in the Herceptin campaign, while also continuing on my own breast cancer treatment. The grief was not shrinking, rather our lives were growing around it.
I had the support of loving family, friends and of course, Max, who helped me navigate through the journey with grief. I certainly couldn’t have done it alone. I learned how to identify triggers for my grief and how to manage them. For me, keeping active, being outdoors amongst nature, walking, biking, swimming, exploring new places and experiencing new things all helped. Being surrounded by positive, kind, genuine, compassionate and empathetic people was exceptionally beneficial too.
The pain of grief still flares up when you least expect it. Over time, I have developed a thin veneer to hold everything together, knowing what to do to keep it all intact, but sometimes that thin veneer cracks. I’m aware when it happens and have learned how to manage it so I can cope, function and enjoy the simple pleasures and treasures life gives.
Sometimes, that may be taking time to myself, minimizing outside stressors as best I can, reaching out to friends or taking some time for solitude in our beautiful country. Walking along the beach, listening to the waves crashing on the shore, the birds singing…being absorbed at that moment can bring a lot of calm and perspective.
There are also certain situations that will always be difficult. For example, I struggle with Christmas. The carefreeness and joy people share at Christmas is beautiful, but I find it so hard as it is a time when I’m faced with the magnitude of my loss. So I do other things, need it be going on a holiday, a sporting adventure, road trip or spending time with friends…I just do Christmas in a different way.
As life goes on, I live each day with my memories, navigating life with grief that for the most part, is bearable, but at times, can flare up and knock me off my feet. In those times, I turn to our wonderful supporters and engage those coping mechanisms I have developed to get us through.
One thing is for sure, as the saying goes, I would not swap this grief for never of having Kenzie in my life. I loved her with all my heart and will do to the end of my days.
Nic and Conor 2020