Rest peacefully Emma and thank you

Bernie Kirwan, a Cancer Support Nurse and breast cancer survivor of 18 years, is here today to share a few words about Emma and how we can deal with the pain of losing someone to cancer, whether we knew them personally or not.

I can’t help but notice as Storm Emma abated this week, the very beautiful Emma Hannigan slipped away quietly, her suffering coming to an end, her storm finally over.

We cannot but be touched, in a very deep way by her time here on earth. Most of us only knew her through her books and media presence. She has been inspirational in sharing her journey, so we feel a strong connection to her. This connection is even more meaningful for anyone who is going through a cancer diagnosis.

When we are touched by a cancer diagnosis we seek out the good stories, the people who are further on than us. The people who appear strong, positive and who convey a real ‘can do’ attitude. In our fear and desperation, we look towards them as a beacon of light and hope on our dark days. In other words, ‘if they can do it, so can I’. These people may be in our personal lives, local support centres/hospitals. Often too, they can be a celebrity who shares their journey in a public forum.

Emma very generously shared her journey with us all. She certainly became a beacon for many on their own cancer journey. Her passing makes us feel very vulnerable, even frightened. It is 18 years since my own breast cancer diagnosis, so I can identify with those feelings, especially in the early years.

Those feelings are less severe for me as the years have passed but of course it still touched something deep within me when I heard the news.

For any of you who are on your own cancer journey and are feeling vulnerable and frightened right now, here are my thoughts and wise bits I’ve learnt along the way.

I have been working as a cancer support nurse for the past 10 years and I have learnt so much from those I come into contact with on a daily basis.

Maybe you are feeling a bit silly, after all, you didn’t know Emma. She wasn’t a part of your daily life or that of your family, so why are you feeling it so much?

I need to emphasise that Emma was a part of your lives, you compared her journey to yours, you identified with her age, her children and her life story. So, it is a real loss, maybe even your first experience of loss. She formed a backdrop to your own personal cancer journey. Her passing brings home to you a feeling of looking at and accepting your own mortality, a feeling that you have lost a friend, a fellow soldier.

All the feelings are real, certainly not silly and it really is okay to feel them.

Her passing can also be the trigger that realises your own inner fears and worries around your own diagnosis. Often the public outpouring of grief when someone in the media passes away gives a voice to our own deep emotions, tears and sadness. Somehow there is a sense of community in that outpouring, that provides a platform for us to simply cry.

We identify with her family and friends and even imagine if it was us. We realise that life really is not permanent and none of us really know how long ours will be.

So, how can you help yourself at this time?

Firstly, realising and acknowledging what you are feeling right now is perfectly normal.

Cry on your own or with a trusted friend. Did you know that crying is actually a sign of strength? It expresses your courage. Being brave enough to show that you’re not afraid to show your emotions is the ultimate act of bravery and positivity.

Devote some specific time to talk about Emma. Gather with someone who shares or understands your feelings. Share the experiences and memories with other people. Celebrate the legacy that Emma gave you – how she affected and impacted you.

Find some quiet time to reflect and simply ‘be’. Create your own little ritual, e.g. a lighted candle, a prayer, whatever works for you.

Yes, she is gone, but take her legacy deep into your heart and show just what a difference she made to us all. What she gave you is still here and always will be. Inspiration, honesty, vulnerability, hope, strength, inner beauty, to name but a few. Even though she is gone in body, her spirit and impact will remain.

You can still hold onto all of that and what a testament that would be to Emma and her family.

Remember too that you are a unique individual, on your own personal journey. Yes, you are influenced by another’s path, but your journey is uniquely yours. You are perfectly imperfect as is the rest of humanity. Allow your desire to live to your very best gently lead you to a life of unconditional love both for yourself and for others. Allow your personal challenges to be a part of who you are. You don’t always have to be strong to be powerful, sometimes you need to fall apart so you can put yourself back together.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask for help, talk to someone. Seek the right support for you. Check out the Irish Cancer Society website for support in your local area.

Finally, to her close family and friends, I hope you find peace. May her light continue to carry each and every one of you in the days ahead.

This post first appeared on Bernie’s website. It has been re-published here with her permission.

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