Given only a short time, how do you impart a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, advice, and love to your children, family and friends?
When Anne Clifton’s friend Jenny died last January (2015) after a decade-long battle with breast cancer, her heart broke.
The pair had been friends since they met at nursing school in 1990 and together they had shared laughter and tears; none more so than on a Sunday in July 2005 when both women had life-changing news to share.
“I told her I was pregnant with my second child and she told me she had breast cancer,” Anne said.
Anne was blindsided.
“When Jenny told me she had Grade 4 Inflammatory breast cancer, we both swore a bit; I knew that diagnosis meant you had three or four years if you were lucky.”
Jenny was adamant that she would beat her cancer and her friends, including Anne, rallied around her.
“Once diagnosed, we started going for girls’ weekends at the beach every three or six months and if we couldn’t get away we’d go for long, long lunches. It was a chance for us to just be us, we didn’t talk about cancer, we just talked about normal things,” Anne said.
After a mastectomy and intensive treatment program, Jenny went into remission.
“We had a big celebration; we celebrated life and our kids, getting back to normal for a while and getting hair on one’s head!”
Back at work, Jenny took on a role working as a breast care nurse at Mater where she offered care and support to other women diagnosed with breast cancer.
She celebrated their milestones and held their hands through each setback.
Tracy Bevan on how she has kept Jane McGrath's memory alive for her kids. (Post continues after audio.)
But Jenny’s battle wasn’t over and four years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, doctors gave the mother-of-two the news she feared most; the cancer had spread to her liver and bones.
At this time, Jenny had the chance to work with counsellor Judith Gordon to make a memory box for her family and friends.
Judith, a creative arts therapist, offers guidance and support to women with terminal breast cancer at Mater, by helping them to create special memory boxes to pass on memories, mementos, cards and letters to their loved ones.
For these women, preparing to say goodbye is difficult, especially for those who will have to say goodbye to their children.
“Grief is not about forgetting the person who has died; it's about finding ways to remember them and take their memory forward,” Judith said.
“It can be difficult for children to hold on to their memories, so by putting together a memory box, mums can leave their children with stories, photos, much-loved items and reminders of their life together which they can keep forever.”
But making a memory box is often a challenging and deeply emotional experience.
“Facing the task of creating mementos for their children, family and friends can feel overwhelming for the mums and it is often hard to know where to start,” Judith said.
“The aim of the Mum, Memories and Me program at Mater is to support women therapeutically and practically; I’m there to give them the support they need to start the project and to gain some peace around what is happening and how they’re going to proceed going forward.
“It can be a challenging and emotional task but I feel like it is an honour to be trusted with such a gift as the opportunity to share in this very important task with them.”
Mums often fill their memory boxes with letters, cards and gifts for major birthdays and milestone events, favourite recipes, photos, childhood items, ‘mum’s favourite things’, ‘how to’ manuals and messages of gratitude for family and friends.
Judith also works with mums to record their biographies.
“Children may want to know things about mum’s life before she was a mum and often they don’t ask those questions until they’re older so we record her story for if or when they want to read it.”
“Our mums expressed a desire to create something that will bring comfort and happiness to their children when they need it, and I believe these memory boxes do just that.”
Jenny completed her memory box before she passed away in January 2015. Among the letters tucked away inside was one for each of her girlfriends, including Anne.
“It was a surprise; a bit of a sad surprise but she always wanted to have the last say,” Anne laughed.
The friends gathered together and over a few bottles of champagne read their letters and remembered Jenny.
“We were all crying, but I’m so appreciative and grateful and thrilled that she thought to write to us all; it was bittersweet but it’s certainly lovely to have now to read back whether it’s once a year or whenever we need it.
“Jenny had a driving force to do something that would make an impact on other people’s lives and while she couldn’t work out what that would be, these memories are her legacy.”
October is breast cancer awareness month. With your generous support this October, Mater Chicks in Pink can continue to provide invaluable support services to women with breast cancer cared for at Mater. Visit www.materchicksinpink.org.au to donate today.