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 cancer.ca or by calling 1-888-939-3333.