An emotional story of sickness, loss, grief, love and healing touched hearts at Sunshine Coast Hospice’s Breast Cancer Awareness lunch, at The Red Apple Emporium recently.
Simone Blanckenberg, from Cape Town, shared her story of surviving cancer and then dealing with the loss of two small children.
Blanckenberg (nee Lowe) grew up in Grahamstown and was familiar to many of the 139 women who attended the luncheon.
“Grief is such a taboo subject and makes so many people feel unbelievably uncomfortable,” she said. “Yet the only thing in life is certain is death – so we will all grieve.
“I hope that I can share a little today of my own experience with grief, what I have learned and what I wish other people knew about grief.”
The eldest of three siblings, Blanckenberg said she had an idyllic life until the age of eight, when her mother Lindy died from complications following a car accident.
“My completely sheltered life changed forever,” she said.
Blanckenberg believed the loss of her mother at such an early age equipped her to be able to face the challenges to come
But she said she believed the loss of her mother at such an early age equipped her to be able to face the challenges to come.
About a year later her father Murray remarried Debbie, who at the age of 23 took on the mammoth task of parenting three little children who were not biologically her own.
When Murray and Debbie got divorced nine years later, Blanckenberg said she endured another period of grief.
When Blanckenberg was 23 she was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. “I got off relatively lightly the first time around, but at the age of 29 it came back a lot more aggressively, this time in my lymph glands.”
She underwent surgery and radiation treatment, and was told that because of the area they had to radiate, she would potentially be infertile.
“At the time, I was so focused on beating the cancer, that I never really paid too much attention to this,” she said.
She met her husband James and was informed after medical tests that she would never be able to have children as she was not producing any eggs.
But three months later she fell pregnant with their “miracle baby”, Murray, and seven months after he was born, she fell pregnant with Isabella.
Isabella was born on February 1 2015. “I felt like the luckiest person in the world – an amazing husband and two precious children,” Simone said.
But then tragedy struck when Bella was seven months old – she asphyxiated in her cot.
“Our life was changed in an instant – forever. It is impossible to find words to describe that day, or the days that followed as we tried to get to grips with the fact that our darling Bella had died. That we would never see her again,” Simone said.
She said she and James grieved differently – he is a crier and she is not. While she was in shock and went into cope mode, continuing to work and function, James fell apart, grieving and weeping solidly for the first few months after Bella’s death.
Then, as her husband was starting to feel a little more able to cope with life and function again, Simone started grieving deeply, and her husband was there to support her.
They spoke about having another child, but although James wanted to wait, Simone wanted to forge ahead.
She conceived again, a boy they decided to name Thomas. For six months the pregnancy went according to plan, but then at 24 weeks , Simone started bleeding heavily. She was in hospital for two weeks and then at 26 weeks and three days little Thomas entered the world when Simone had a placental abruption. He weighed just 700 grams and despite every effort from the medical team, he suffered internal bleeding and died just three hours later.
“To say I hit rock bottom is an understatement. I was still grieving Bella,” she said.
We have been determined not to allow Murray’s entire life to be impacted by the loss of his siblings, for it not to result in the loss of his parents as well
They had to carry on with life and get out of bed in the morning. Their first child Murray kept them going as they had to feed him, read him stories and play with him.
“I thank God for this. We have been determined not to allow Murray’s entire life to be impacted by the loss of his siblings, for it not to result in the loss of his parents as well,” Simone said.
James started a blog after Bella died, and Simone was at first appalled that he was making their tragedy public and putting their vulnerability out there.
“However, I’ve come to realise that our blog has become one of the most powerful tools in both the processing of our own grief and helping others know how to deal with us.”
It’s also helped others who have experienced loss, specifically that of a child.
“Our children’s legacy lives on through this,” she said.
Simone said she and James’ family, friends and community had been an incredible support to them.
“But society in general is ill-equipped to deal with grief,” she said.
She gave some tips from her own experiences on how to deal with people who are grieving.
- Just acknowledge people’s loss – more often than not it will be appreciated.
- Don’t try to fix or rationalise their pain – grief is not a problem to be solved.
- Say their loved one’s name, often – they are desperate to hear it.
- Don’t ask what you can do to help – just use your initiative and do it.
- Realise that someone’s loss will change them forever – don’t expect your old friend to emerge again after the socially allowed two weeks’ of mourning.
- There are two days a year they need a time-out – their loved one’s birthday and the anniversary of their death. Be gentle around these times.
- Be consistent in your support – once everyone else has moved on, those directly affected are still grieving.
- Don’t take it personally when your grieving friend forgets something – they just can’t cognitively deal with it.
- Never tell a mother that her child is in a “better place” or that “everything happens for a reason”.
Simone said she had personally learned the value of therapy, resilience, vulnerability, to have an attitude of gratitude, that she can’t control everything, and to cry.
See Simone and James’ blog at isabella1509.com