Helping others a balm for loss

CancerConnection: The death of Erica Casselman’s husband sparked a desire to help others in similar situations.

Honour: Sisters Val Laidlaw left and Daphne Van Alstine

Honour: Sisters Val Laidlaw left and Daphne Van Alstine

When Erica Casselman’s husband died in 2007, he left behind a gaping hole in her heart.

Despite pain that remains both powerful and deep, Casselman has honoured Jim’s memory by sharing her knowledge, time and compassion as a volunteer for CancerConnection.

As well as providing support to caregivers over the phone, Casselman drew on the experience of caring for her husband by writing a continuing education training module for CancerConnection volunteers that is now delivered across the country.

It was a contribution the Cancer Society rewarded with a Division Award of Achievement in Volunteer Leadership, which was presented to her at the society’s 2014 Volunteer Summit in Cranbrook at the end of September.

The award recognizes “society volunteers who have exhibited exemplary leadership and made significant contribution to help further the mission of the society.”

During her two-year journey caring for Jim, Casselman discovered there was a wealth of support for people living and dying with cancer, but next to nothing for their caregivers.

After Jim’s death, she heard about CancerConnection from a friend who was being supported by the group and told Casselman she would be a very good support for other people.

For the first 13 years of its existence, CancerConnection was a service that provided support to people diagnosed with cancer through phone calls.

In 2013, the program was expanded to offer support to caregivers of cancer patients because the Canadian Cancer Society recognized that the person diagnosed with cancer may be at the centre of the story, but many other family members and friends are shaped by the experience too – in particular, the primary caregiver.

Casselman and her two sons travelled a road to Jim’s death that was both harsh and cruel, yet at times beautifully intimate.

The grieving widow told CancerConnection she recognized the gifts she had been given though her own painful experience were a privilege, opportunity and responsibility to share with others.

“They embraced me and then I trained with other CancerConnection volunteers,” she says, pointing out she is the only caregiver on the team in British Columbia.

Keeping in mind her mantra: “nothing is real until it’s experienced,” Casselman is painfully aware of many of the issues caregivers face when a loved one is dying.

“I can talk very openly and honestly; I speak the truth,” she says, noting that people often try to mask or avoid pain by using euphemisms such as passing, crossing over or lost to describe death.

“When you use dying and death, then you can get into pretty good conversations.”

And what Casselman often hears from caregivers she connects with is that she is the only one that understands what they are going through, the only one that gets it, because she has travelled their pain-filled path.

“I would really have appreciated this,” she says. “It gives me a bit of purpose and he (Jim) would have been extremely proud of me.”

Casselman only works with caregivers, usually with someone whose spouse is dying, and makes just one phone call afterward.

“What I do is make sure they’re connected to hospice or bereavement support of some description,” she says. “Interestingly enough, one of the most common questions is, ‘what is it like being a widow?’  I can’t go there.”

Casselman says her role involves a lot of listening at scheduled times that work for both volunteer and caregiver, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We do it all by phone so it’s very safe,” she says. “Plus it’s accessible. So many people in outlying areas don’t have access to service.”

If you or someone you know has cancer, or if you are a cancer survivor or caregiver looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity, the Canadian Cancer Society invites you to contact its free and confidential support programs at or by calling 1-888-939-3333.


Just Posted

Teslyn Bates, a Grade 11 student at Salmon Arm Secondary, was among four musicians from the Shuswap who won awards at the 2021 Virtual Performing Arts BC Festival held June 1-5. (Contributed)
Province takes note of young Shuswap musicians at June festival

Four local contestants receive awards at 2021 Virtual Performing Arts BC Festival

Shuswap Immigrant Services Society plans to hold a vigil on Friday, June 25 at 8 p.m. to honour the victims of what officials are calling a terrorist attack on five Muslims in London, Ont. (File photo)
Salmon Arm council holds minute of silence to honour victims of Ontario attack

Shuswap Immigrant Services Society plans vigil for Muslim family on June 25, 8 p.m. at McGuire Lake

(Pixabay photo)
Morning Start: Goosebumps helped scare off predators

Your morning start for Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A first-dose mobile vaccination clinic is being held on Tuesday, June 15 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Salmon Arm fairgrounds, west entrance across from spray park. (Interior Health image)
Location for Salmon Arm’s June 15 COVID-19 mobile vaccine clinic changes slightly

Immunization clinic still at fairgrounds but people attending asked to use different entrance

Felix Haase and Jayme Saretzky staff a pop-up booth to support the Salmon Arm Pride Project on the patio of the newly reopened Wild Craft Mercantile at 121 Shuswap St. on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Wild Craft Mercantile in Salmon Arm holds grand reopening, celebrates Pride month

Store moves from Lakeshore to Shuswap, demonstrates support for Pride project

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

Ivy was thrown out of a moving vehicle in Kelowna. Her tail was severely injured and will be amputated. (BC SPCA)
Kitten thrown from moving vehicle, needs help: Kelowna SPCA

The seven-month-old kitten had severe tail and femur injuries

Vernon Elks Lodge secretary-treasurer Maureen Sather says special relief funding for the organization courtesy of Community Futures North Okanagan has been just that: a relief. (Photo submitted)
Zero funding for Vernon Elks club

Once-in-100-years grant denied after back and forth with city for support

Lyndsay Fillier and Braden Taylor have been living the van life for four years and they've detailed the first year of their adventures in a new book. (Twila Amato/Black Press Media)
VIDEO: Okanagan couple details first year of van life in new book

Lyndsay Fillier and Braden Taylor have been living the van life for four years

A young child was taken to hospital after being struck by a vehicle on 30th Avenue in Vernon Friday, June 11, 2021. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Child OK after being hit by car in Vernon

Father says daughter was back home by supper time

A health-care worker holds up a sign signalling she needs more COVID-19 vaccines at the ‘hockey hub’ mass vaccination facility at the CAA Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, June 4, 2021. This NHL-sized hockey rink is one of CanadaÕs largest vaccination centres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
‘Vaxxed to the max’: Feds launch Ask an Expert campaign to encourage COVID shots

Survey shows that confidence in vaccines has risen this spring

Port Alberni court house (Alberni Valley News)
Inquest set into 2016 death of B.C. teen after a day spent in police custody

18-year-old Jocelyn George died of heart failure in hospital after spending time in jail cell

Children’s shoes and flowers are shown after being placed outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ontario commits $10 million to investigate burial sites at residential schools

Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified 12 locations of unmarked burial sites in Ontario

Two hundred and fifteen lights are placed on the lawn outside the Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., Saturday, June, 13, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Days after Kamloops remains discovery, Tk’emlups families gather to unite, move ahead

‘We have to work together because this is going to be setting a precedent for the rest of the country’

Most Read