How does a child navigate the sickness and death of another child close to them

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The wonderful people I interview for the your stories series on pod tales are generous enough to share personal and pivotal stories of challenge and hardship.  With this in mind, I thought it only fair, that I share one too.

I was nine when the phone rang, one week day evening, to deliver the news that my seven year old cousin had incurable brain cancer.  As my parents broke the shocking news that my cousin was going to die, an ordinary day suddenly became extraordinary.  I, however, was completely perplexed.  How could this news be delivered with such certainty?  Surely they were wrong?  Just moments before, I had been joking around with my brothers and eating dinner, this kind of news doesn’t come after dinner.  There was no way my beautifully spirited and very much alive cousin could possibly die.  I was rather upset and annoyed by the whole scenario that had suddenly been thrust upon me.  I decided that adults were often overly dramatic about sickness, I comforted myself with this thought and packed the idea of death neatly away. 

As my cousin, an only child, started treatment for her brain cancer my parents made every effort for us to be with her as much as possible.   I would travel to the children’s hospital after school with my Dad and spend the afternoons chatting and playing with her.  It is these memories, of my last year with her, that I hold close.  I unpack them year after year as I grow older and as I go through life’s milestones, my lens changing to accomodate my ever changing life and circumstance.  Deeper understanding of what went on coming as the years drift by. 

At the time of her illness I navigated most of that year with a sense of optimism and innocence.  I had never known anyone who had been sick enough to be in hospital, so the visits there were a complete eye opener.  There was the beautiful doctor who gave us icy poles when we came to visit, her friendly nature and great kindness making a lasting impression on me and her own death from cancer, years later, reinforcing the lottery of the disease.  My cousin’s everlasting array of brand new toys that she received as generous gifts were very exciting as was the all you can eat Mc Donalds we were given whilst my cousin stayed at Ronald Mc Donald house.  Although, the fact that we were suddenly permitted to gorge ourselves on Mc Donald’s, when it was usually banned, did set alarm bells ringing.  As I watched my brothers run to order another round of hamburgers, it dawned on me that things might be more serious than I’d initially thought.   

All in all though, my memories until the last few weeks of her life were pretty positive.  Even when the adults around us broke down and could no longer fight back their tears I wasn’t too phased, I put it down to adults being serious.  I remember the day of a big party for my cousin, she was wearing the most beautiful dress I had ever seen.  I thought it was such a wonderful celebration and I couldn’t understand why one of my aunts was quietly weeping as my cousin sat on her lap, resplendent in her gorgeous party dress.  As tears streamed down her face, I wondered what had happened to her.   Why is she crying in the middle of a party? I thought.  The day was supposed to be fun.  Now years later, I identify so much with the poignant scene.  There was my young aunt, holding her beautiful niece on this special milestone day, grieving the fact that it would be her last. 

It was in the final two weeks of her life that my cousin looked sicker than I ever thought possible.  It  suddenly dawned on me that if she did die, it could be really painful. I really didn’t want that for her, after all she’d been through.  It was then that I began to wish for her to no longer be in pain, rather than for anything else.  It was not long after, that she died peacefully in her sleep.  We visited her in her bed at the palliative care hospital and as the adults buzzed around, some taking photos of us, I had no idea what to do.  I was desperately sad but didn’t want to break down in front of everyone.  As someone asked us to pose for a picture I smiled and was quickly told I didn’t need to.  I thought how stupid I’d been to smile but in all honesty had no idea what the appropriate etiquette for this type of thing was. 

When the end came, it was pretty devastating.  Everyone navigates grief differently and children journey through it in their own way.  I remember her often and even in small ways, like when my daughter picks up my cousin’s old toy that we have kept and asks where we got it from or when my son had his seventh birthday, I pondered that her seventh was her last.  Recently our family was touched by another beautiful little girl, a friend, who lost her life to brain cancer.  One night as I tucked my eldest child into bed, he asked me about a shadow he thought he could see in his room.  As he sometimes thinks about ghosts,  I comforted him, saying it was nothing to worry about.  Quick as a flash he replied, “I know mummy, I’m not worried, it’s just our friend passing through on the way to visit her mummy and daddy”.  His words reminded me of the innocence and optimism I had, now over twenty five years ago, when my cousin was ill.  It struck me how powerful the ability of a child is, to preserve the memory of these very special companions.

pod tales- your story series

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“I was twenty nine and decided I wanted to go to England before the working visa was no longer available.  I went on my own, jumped on a plane eat, pray, love style and took off.  I went to embrace life, to be completely me and to spend time on my own.  This trip was an opportunity to evolve, I knew I had the capacity for more growth.

I went to England and did a block of teaching for ten weeks.  The teaching was tough, the students would throw chairs and things like that.  I had one student run at me with their fist in my face and that was at one of the better schools.  My experience as a teacher in Sydney helped me and I knew how to stand my ground.  The other schools were all different sorts of scenarios, police on the driveways as you entered, teachers on duty with walky-talkies, staff rooms with CCTV.  The kids didn’t have books, pens, pencils, nothing.  You had to take your own paper and pens for them everyday.  As a casual you’d have to supply it all yourself and you’d never get your pens back, because they would snap them.  Everyday you’d need to bring in thirty new pens, it was ridiculous.

When the school year ended, I met my sister in Munich for her thirtieth birthday and from there we went travelling for six weeks together.  We’d poured over our mother’s travel photos over the years and she really inspired us to travel the world.  We went all around France and then to Italy.  While we were in the Italian cliffside village of Positano I met a guy.  I’d always been told by a friend when you are in Italy, be seen, sit outside, dress nice and be seen. No joke, we got dressed up, we sat outside this perfect restaurant and a guy walked past.  It was like, me: “hi”, him: “ciao”, me: “ciao”, him: “ciao” and that was it.  We kept seeing him around over the course of the evening and later that night we met up at a night club and had a great time together.

My sister and I continued our travels throughout Europe, but it wasn’t long before I got a phone call from him (in very broken english) inviting me to a big medieval festival in Tuscany. It sounded pretty fantastic to an Australian chick so I travelled back to be with him and had an absolute ball.  I stayed with him for a few weeks and then went back to England as I had a teaching job lined up.  He kept ringing me constantly, asking me to come back and stay with him.  Something in me just said to take a big leap.  The point of the trip was to to be out of my comfort zone and London wasn’t providing that.  A little medieval village in Tuscany, however, was just the ticket.

I lived in Tuscany with him for a year.  By the end of that year I was in my prime, I’d mastered the art of living in a medieval city, felt amazing, was speaking Italian and my health and fitness had never been better.  I had a job teaching English to Italians, had money, a great partner and had been to so many European destinations that my collection of photos now rivalled my mother’s.  However, things were about to change drastically.  Summer arrived and I was invited to go and stay with a girlfriend at the Tuscan seaside and I jumped at the chance.

One morning, shortly after I’d arrived, my friend suggested I take her spare bike to ride to the beach.  I said I’d walk but they were keen for me to ride the bike, so I did.  I had a strong sense that I should not have got on the bike, I wish I’d listened to my intuitive self that day.  We were riding down to the beach and it was a perfect blue sky day, the glistening ocean views were breathtaking.  As I rode, I saw a young boy happily riding his bike in my direction.  He started to swing his bike from side to side as he rode and then began to stand up on his bike as he sped along.  He was looking out at the stunning view and was not conscious or aware of his surroundings at all.  I saw him and got a burning feeling in my gut that it wasn’t safe for me to keep riding, I pulled over to the side of the five metre board walk and waited for him to go past.  He started to ride really fervently and lost control of his bike.  He hit me hard and dragged me back a few metres.  At this point, I was still standing on my bike despite the crash, however, our bikes had become stuck together.  He was extremely panicked and proceeded to push down and pump the bikes hard.  I was pushed to the ground by the force and it was then that my whole foot joint exploded. I didn’t feel it though, I was still very concerned for him.  When he picked up his bike and I was finally free, I saw my foot facing the completely wrong way, my toes, halfway up my calf.

An ambulance arrived quickly and people came running out of their homes to help, I must have been screaming.  I was driven to the local village primary school where they put me on a science lab table.  Luckily there was morphine and other drugs handy.  My boyfriend called his contacts and got me into a hospital in Florence.  My mum flew over to Italy, alone, with no word of Italian to look after me.   The hospital experience was very different to what I was used to back at home.  There was no air conditioning despite the forty degree summer heat, no TV and limited visiting. We spent a lot of the time crying and going to the hospital’s beautiful chapel which looked more like a Cathedral. 

It was months before I was fit to fly home to Australia.  It was a massive recovery, five surgeries overall and auto immune disease to boot.  I was determined to focus on the healing, my goal was that I wasn’t going to let the accident define me.  I started doing yoga and meditation again. I’d found yoga before but got much more into it, as I couldn’t walk properly, dance or run; all things I’d done before the accident.  I completed yoga teacher training and it was really transformative.  I got a new job and focused on wellbeing. I took my life lessons on well-being, self care and healing to my school and started to run programmes with the kids and it was wonderful.

While I was on the trip I was asking the universe to put me on my path.  I wonder now, many years later, if in fact the accident was doing just that, putting me on my true path.  The accident has given me greater empathy, I can now hold space for other people and truly listen.  I feel I’m meant to do healing work with kids, parents and everyone.  I’ve learnt that healing is not a quick fix it’s hard yakka, but it can be done.  I was so determined not to let the accident define me, that in the end in some ways it did.  However, it has been for the better and for that I am grateful.  It gives me great joy to now offer a space for others to work on their own well-being and healing”.  (Carolyn, Sydney, Australia)

For more from Carolyn head to her Take A Breath Studio page on Facebook or follow @takeabreathstudio on Instagram

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pod tales- your story series

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“We escaped communist occupied Czechoslovakia in 1948.  We had found a man that knew what part of the barbed wire fence on the military guarded border was loose and could be crawled though.  We fled in the dead of night, through heavy rain, to increase our chances of not being seen.   I told my parents I was going to flee with my fiancé, but he didn’t tell his parents.  My Mum and Dad were sad and cried but they understood that we would have better chances if we left.  My Grandma said it would be the last time I would ever see her.  That was very hard for me, she was my everything and I loved her so very much.  She had lived with my parents and myself, in our one bedroom apartment, for my whole life.  She died two years after we fled and I never saw her again.   

We originally wanted to go to America but the quota was full, we ended up on a flight to Australia in 1949 after some time in a German refugee camp.  We were placed in the migrant reception camp at Bonegilla and from there we went to Sydney.  We liked it so decided to stay.  My husband and I could have retrained and worked in the same fields that we had back at home but we were 29 and wanted a family and needed money, it made sense to have our own business and open our own cake shop.   My husband had done his bakers training alongside his university degree.  His father was a baker and insisted all his sons get their baking qualifications. 

I was pregnant not long after arriving in Australia and had my first daughter in 1953.  I didn’t know all the things I needed for a new baby but our next door neighbour, an Anglo Australian woman, who had two teenage daughters, said she would organise everything for me.  She knitted me lots of outfits and brought lots of baby things into the cake shop for me.  They were very lovely people.  I had my daughter at the Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington.   They took very good care of me, except at one stage, they were so full they put my bed out on the verandah.  It was a completely open verandah with no fly screens or protections from the elements and it was cold at night.  I had to tell them I needed a bed indoors, I had bad bronchitis, I couldn’t be out there all night in the middle of winter.

I didn’t drive so didn’t meet the mothers at my daughter’s school much.  I stayed and   worked in the shop.  I had one day out a week to the city, that was nice, I would do my shopping and go to David Jones. I enjoyed it.  We had Sundays off and we would see our other Czech friends we had met once we had settled in Sydney.  We had one dear friend from home that we met by complete chance in Sydney.  We knew he had escaped Czechoslovakia but heard he had gone to South Africa.  We were walking down George St in the city and suddenly saw him in a camera shop window. It was unbelievable. We were so happy to have found each other”. (Sydney, Australia) 

IMG_4139                                    Woodstock migrant reception centre, Sydney 1949