A Most Unexpected Journey

. April 1, 2014.

Karen Zickes is a longtime contributor to Toledo Area Parent and expert restaurant reviewer in the monthly piece, Food Fight. The mother of three beautiful children lost her husband to cancer months ago and continues to amaze us with her courage and passion to move forward. This is the first of her series of articles about life after loss and we hope readers will join in to hear her story.

You never imagine it will be your family. You most certainly don’t ever PLAN for it. But then it happens-your spouse of 15 years is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

My husband Jim was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in November 2012. He lost his valiant fight 10.5 months later. This is our journey.

The first four weeks after my husband’s diagnosis remain a complete blur. Barely able to catch our breath, we helplessly gazed into the innocent faces of our three young children wondering what the future held for our family.

“Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.”
— Martin Buber

Life as we knew it ceased and a new unexpected life took residence. Our new life became stuck on fast-forward with no option to hit the pause button. The only thing that mattered was getting tests and scans done as soon as possible, while feverishly researching and calling on doctors you hoped would have the answers to make the cancer go away. We traveled near and far before deciding on our course of treatment. We moved mountains at record speed but sometimes, it’s just never fast enough.

When life turned upside down I adopted six simple, yet powerful practices that built a strong foundation that set the tone for lay ahead. They have continued to help my family on our most unexpected journey.  After all, the family travels the bumpy roads together.

Accept help. It is extremely hard to do but so very necessary.  And if you are the friend of someone in need, tell them specifically how you can best help them; rather than saying “let me know if you need anything.” Use your imagination and you will certainly identify something specific you can do for a friend in need.

Bend without breaking. Having a plan is good, and a daily schedule even better. However, understanding that you may be on Plan G before noon on most days is the best way to roll. This is easier said than done and may take a bit of practice and patience.

Two steps forward, one step back. You will have many forward moving days. The subsequent days may be rattled with unexpected setbacks. This will be your new norm. Don’t let the backpedaling deter you.

Stay positive. I am first to say maintaining positivity isn’t always attainable. However, it’s proven that patients who fight with a positive attitude respond better to treatment than those who choose to give up before even beginning their fight. Keeping an upbeat atmosphere around the house, especially with children, is vital. Being positive is less draining of your energy and helps maintain routines. Let those around you know that negativity is checked at the door.

Sometimes having children make encouraging signs or inspirational quotes to hang around the house can keep the positive energy flowing. I love music, and the first thing I did was start a new playlist titled “Power of Positive”. Sometimes, you just need to jam to encouraging tunes to help you through the day.

Chronicle your journey. Even if you don’t view yourself as much of a writer, keeping family and friends in the loop is beneficial to everyone, and can even be very therapeutic. There are blog sites out there such as The Caring Bridge, or as I preferred; emailing friends and family every two weeks. My updates included a “medical update” and a “family update”. I attached family photos of what we had been up to over the past couple of weeks.

People are anxious to walk the journey with you, so why not invite them along? And when you keep people in the loop, you will greatly reduce the constant emails, calls, and texts asking for updates.

Be honest with your kids. Follow your gut as to what you think your children are able to understand, but BE HONEST with them, on whatever level they can comprehend. Children will be more scared if their imaginations run wild because of the unknown, and they need to know they are an important part of the family too.

You can be positive and reassuring without making false promises. You never want a child blindsided, nor do you want them to lose trust in you. Continue the dialogue even after the “family meetings”.

Your journey may be likened to being in a vortex. Be ready for the twists, the turns, and the unknowns. Whether you are the patient or caregiver, always remember the importance of taking even just 10 minutes a day for you. Remember to find the joy in each and every day.

Karen Zickes is a mom of three active children and freelance writer who resides in Holland, OH.