The sheer numbers are staggering. The American Cancer Society estimates that, this year alone, 230,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and nearly 40,000 women will die. Talking to your children about cancer and explaining what may ultimately happen, is one of the most difficult and excruciating conversations a parent can have.
“I’m not sure you can prepare them. I don’t think kids can understand, says Casey Holstein. Casey, 50, lost his wife Robin to breast cancer four years ago. Robin was 45 years old, leaving behind two young daughters Charli, 8, and Lia, 6.
“Robin was a passionate and dynamic woman who refused to let herself be defined by breast cancer,” says Casey, a charismatic man who exudes positive energy and elicits easy smiles. “The cancer became a part of our life but we didn’t want it to define our life. At the same time we tried really hard to be realistic about what Robin was going through.”
Robin’s battle with cancer lasted five years. She was first diagnosed when her younger daughter Lia was two years old.
“The girls didn’t really grasp what was happening. They just thought mommy was tired a lot,” Casey says. “I remember vividly a day when the girls came home from camp and saw Robin sitting at the computer and said, ‘look mommy’s not tired today.’”
When Robin lost her hair from the chemotherapy, her daughters helped shave her head. Casey says that bringing the girls into the process showed that it wasn’t something scary.
“I had volunteered to shave my head as well in support of Robin,” Casey says. “But Robin had no desire to look at my large head in a bald state. I didn’t blame her. But for the girls, the shaving experience was a very funny moment without them actually realizing what was happening.”
It was Robin’s wish that she didn’t die at home. She wanted home to be a place of life and happiness, not death. So after eight days of hospice at home, Casey called an ambulance to take Robin to the hospital, knowing it was time. To protect the girls from seeing their mom carried out to an ambulance, Casey took Charli and Lia on a bike ride to a quiet park and playground to have that unimaginable conversation.
“I told the girls that mommy is dying and we are going to the hospital today and we have to say goodbye,” Casey says. “When I told them, they both ran away.”
The next day after Robin passed away Casey explained to his daughters that their mom had died.
“Lia gasped and Charli didn’t say anything. I think she already knew,” Casey says.
“I told them that their mom loved them very much and that she will always be in their hearts and heads. I also told them that the next couple of days would be exhausting with a funeral and shiva (a Jewish mourning period),” Casey says.
The girls were part of the funeral and Charli even read the poem “I Did Not Die.” But the girls wanted to know if they were still going to Disney World – a trip that had been planned months earlier when Robin was still healthy.
With all the sadness, the girls stayed focused on Disney World. So days after the funeral, Casey took the girls to Disney World. He says it was a surreal experience but a much needed one.
“We got out of town for five to six days and I let them be kids again,” Casey says.
After Robin’s death Casey connected with a group called Good Grief that specializes in family bereavement counseling for children. For three years the girls went every other week to a local support group where they could talk with other kids their age. They also attended Comfort Zone camps – weekend bereavement camps for children that are scattered across the country.
“The camps were fantastic because they gave the girls a chance and place where they could feel normal and hang out with other kids who had lost a parent,” Casey says.
The girls continue to express their feelings of sadness, anger and loss through letters, writing and poetry.
“I try to give the kids as much as an outlet as possible to deal with their emotions and feelings,” Casey says.
Charli, now 12 years old, is participating in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer this month in New York. Charli decided to make Breast Cancer awareness her Bat Mitzvah project.
“It was all her idea,” Casey says proudly. “I think she’s seen my involvement over the years, but Charli was now ready to do this and she has already raised a ridiculous amount of money.”