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When Grief Comes Knocking Again

Grief has surrounded me most of my adult life starting with my very loved father dying suddenly of a heart attack at age 45. Professionally I worked with hospice and then for 10 years with pediatric oncology where I fell in love with over 100 children that too soon died from cancer. After volunteering for The Compassionate Friends, I began to appreciate that well-run bereavement support groups can do more good than any counselor, so I organized several grief groups. When I left St. Louis Children’s Hospital and escaped to Florida, I did not escape grief. I volunteered for 14 years running the local homicide bereavement group. Then, grief became very personal when our bright, handsome, charming 18-year-old grandson, Adam, was killed suddenly in an accident. He was our daughter’s only child.

Grief may walk out the door for a while with its voice becoming dimmer with time, but then it can turn around and suddenly be knocking down the door again. For us this time it was with the news that our amazing 52-year-old son, Tad, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Ironically, this happened just as I was finally able to find the time to write the book I always promised myself and all of my angels in heaven that I would write about their beautiful lives and courageous deaths: “Remember Me: A Memoir of Children and Teens Combating Cancer.”

The grief for our son is not the heart stopping grief of the loss of our grandson. Adam’s accident was in the morning on the way to his volunteer job as counselor for the YMCA, the week before his high school graduation. I vividly remember later that evening being in Adam’s bathroom and seeing the shaving cream on the side of the can that was still wet. So alive that morning and so totally, irrevocably gone that evening. Such a little thing to remember, but it’s strange how some of the little things get seared into your memory.

Our grief with Tad is more of a gnawing sadness that stays with you every hour of every day while you still go about your life doing your normal things — while you slowly watch the quality of his life slipping away and have the heart wrenching talks with him about when to know when enough is enough. Having worked with so much death and dying, I cannot even pretend that Tad might get the miracle that everyone is praying for because he deserves it for being such a good person. How many good children and teenagers did I work with that died? How many prayers were said for them that were left unanswered – or at least unanswered in the way everyone hoped? What makes me or my son so special that we will be the exception to having to follow this path of loss and grief? Some say we suffered enough with the loss of our grandson, but who is to say that there is a quota on loss? I can’t even say, “Why me?” Do I really have the right to suffer less than the many wonderful families with whom I worked?

People will sometimes say to me, “I don’t know how you can be so strong. I could never do it!” I feel that perhaps people say this because they think that somehow it will abstain

them from such significant loss and grief – because they just couldn’t handle it. It reminds me of long ago hearing a quote from an unknown source: “You never know how strong you are until strong is the only choice you have.” I have known many, many “strong” grieving parents over the years, and strong was not their choice – it was their only hope for survival.

Tad has a tattoo on his hand and wrist, GET UP, to remind himself every day that no matter how bad it gets, “No matter how many times life knocks you down, you have to continue to Get Up and keep moving forward. If you can’t Get Up to help yourself, Get Up to help somebody else.” It Tad has this attitude despite the awful chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries and any hope of survival waning away, how can I do anything less?

Janalee Tomaseski-Heinemann

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