Gratitude for Unexpected Gifts and Bonds Unbroken

by Linda Campanella

Soon after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I resolved that while there was nothing I could do to keep her from dying, there was plenty I could do to help her keep living — fully and joyfully. From the moment of that epiphany until my mother slipped into the coma that preceded her death one year and one day later, my self-appointed mission was to inject living into her dying. This mission was eagerly embraced by my younger siblings, none of whom lived as close to my parents as I did, and deeply appreciated by my heartbroken father, a physician who couldn’t have felt more helpless (or, therefore, more open to any strategy any of us might suggest to infuse happiness and life into the process of anticipating death).

Toward the end of my mother’s life, my brother suggested once or twice that I should write a book about my approach and our collective efforts. “You should call it ‘Living while Dying,’” he told me. At the time, I shrugged off the idea, interpreting and appreciating it as a loving gesture from a brother who was grateful for my role as primary caregiver (with my father) to our mother and grateful, as well, for all the authentic happiness we were in fact managing to find as a family.

Without realizing it, the seed my brother planted began to germinate after my 74-year-old mother died on September 9, 2009. The water that helped the seed grow from idea into intention was provided by my tears. In the days and weeks of intense grief, I noticed, as I lay awake unable to sleep or as I was driving around town and allowing my mind to wander, that ideas for chapter headings were taking shape in my head. Soon my thoughts formed into paragraphs. And eventually it became clear that the voluminous content bubbling up inside me needed an outlet, and so I went to the keyboard. The words flowed directly from a broken heart through my fingers and onto the pages. I started writing on October 26, and by December 17 I had completed a 60,000-word manuscript. I brought it to Staples to be bound and presented it to my father as a Christmas gift.

The writing process was a balm for my broken heart. I’ve come to understand that after losing someone we cherish, we need to talk, we need to share, we need to tell our story to keep the story — and the person we miss — alive. In telling my particular story of loss, I relived and reconstructed a very painful experience, but I also was able to revisit countless joyful times, recall unforgettably poignant moments, wrap myself in the memory of woman who epitomized grace and courage, and take stock of the extraordinary gifts we all had received during her final year. As the words poured out of me, so did the tears. This was, I believe, very healthy and healing.

I did not set out to write something for publication; rather, I set out to provide an outlet for my grief, to stay very connected with my mother during the act of writing about her and our last year together (in fact, I did not want to be finished writing for that reason), and to give my father a loving tribute to his beloved “sweetie pie” on his first Christmas without her. But because my writing was taking the form of a “book,” I did harbor deep inside me, I suppose, the wild idea that maybe one day someone other than family would want to read what was pouring out of me. The more I wrote, the more I realized a book could be a vehicle for keeping my mother’s memory alive, for sharing her legacy of living and loving with others who might be inspired, and even for doing what my brother had initially imagined when he suggested I write, namely provide hope and help to others struggling to navigate the path our family had traveled.

By staying connected with my mother as I wrote about her and us, I managed not to come undone; I was not as adrift or as bereft as I might otherwise have felt. After the manuscript was finished and bound, I picked it up often to read passages, knowing that reading about my mother would revive that sense of connectedness I’d felt when writing. To this day I spontaneously pick up the now-published book, a copy of which sits on my desk, and read a paragraph or a page or a chapter several times a week. As I clutch the book, When All That’s Left of Me Is Love, the words reassure me: my mother’s love is undying, and our bond is unbroken.

A woman who recently read the book wrote to me and expressed appreciation that I had been “able to get those thoughts and feelings out for the rest of us. That is the gift that you were supposed to give,” she wrote, adding “and maybe one reason your mom passed much too soon.” Wow. What a thought.

Though my mother’s death is what gave birth to the story, it really is much more about living (how we choose to live) than about dying. At its heart are two uplifting and life-affirming messages: the empowering reminder that a terminal diagnosis does not terminate life or joyful living, and the comforting reassurance that love lives forever.

Though it may seem utterly impossible in the moment a diagnosis is rendered, the terminally ill and those who begin immediately to grieve their loss will experience enormous joy and unexpected gifts by embracing life while anticipating death, by looking forward to each day as a beginning because of the possibilities it holds rather than dreading tomorrow because it will bring us one day closer to an ending. Psychotherapist and life coach Tammie Fowles of Maine (whose mother was diagnosed with the same cancer that claimed my mother) said my book reminded her of her own family’s “strength and essential proficiencies.” She went on to explain, “We are masters of loving, and as we weave our love throughout each and every moment that we’re together, we can create a sacred container which honors life and offers healing even in the absence of cure.”

I love that idea and image —of being a sacred container honoring life and offering healing even in the absence of cure.

In anticipating the loss of a loved one, most of us imagine we are not strong enough to endure the wrenching pain, yet we can inlinda-and-mom fact survive the grief we have dreaded during the long goodbye. That is not to suggest the grief goes away; it doesn’t. But it changes shape and subsides enough to make room for other feelings — feelings such as gratitude — that are a source of healing.

In the note to my father accompanying the manuscript I gave him that first Christmas without my mother, I said, “Everything I’ve written is written from the heart, a heavy heart but one that also is filled with love — for Mom, for you, for our family. I hope reading this first-person account of our last year with Mom won’t make you sad, because she didn’t/doesn’t want us — and especially you — to be sad. That’s a tall order. Although I am terribly sad that she is not with us anymore, the overwhelming feeling I experienced while remembering and writing about her last year was one of gratitude, and I think that would make her happy. Hope so.”

Now that When All That’s Left of Me Is Love is published for people outside my family to read, I do hope this story of love and loss, which a reviewer described as being “like a comforting touch from a friend who doesn’t know exactly what to say to you when you are going through grief but just wants you to know that he or she is there,” will be a source of reassurance, comfort, and inspiration. Readers meet a woman who lived and loved to her last breath and beyond, a heartbroken family determined to enjoy life while waiting for death, and a daughter whose journey through grief led to gratitude and the realization that we can remain connected with those whose physical presence we miss in ways that are indescribably meaningful and comforting. For this the daughter is especially grateful.

About the Author: Linda Campanella is a management consultant who lives in West Hartford, CT. She holds a bachelor’s degree in German from Amherst College and a master’s in international business from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Joe, and they have three grown sons. When All That’s Left of Me Is Love, Linda’s first book, was published in August 2011 (Tate Publishing & Enterprises) and has earned accolades and awards that include a silver medal in the 2012 Readers Favorite contest and first-place honors in two categories, including best memoir, in the 2012 ReaderViews literary awards program. In November Linda was chosen to be included in the 2012-13 edition of Fifty Great Writers You Should Be Reading, published by The Authors Show. She is particularly proud to have won a 2012 Nautilus Silver Award; the Nautilus book awards “are given to print books of exceptional merit that make a literary and heartfelt contribution to spiritual growth, conscious living, high-level wellness, green values, responsible leadership and positive social change, as well as to the worlds of art, creativity and inspiration.” More information about Linda and her moving memoir can be found at When All That’s Left of Me is Love and on Facebook.