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What grief taught me about resilience


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It's been 15 years since my beautiful 3 year old daughter, Kenzie died from cancer. She would be 18 this year. In that time, I established a charity in her memory to support the mental health of young people and families facing serious illness or grief, by providing one on one therapy with registered mental health professionals and extensive resources. You can check it out here: https://www.kenziesgift.com/

So when I got the opportunity to speak at a TEDx event about what grief taught me, and the work of Kenzie's Gift, I welcomed it.

It was not my first time speaking publicly. I’ve been asked over the years since Kenzie and I were diagnosed with cancer to speak at numerous events. Each talk was different, depending on who, what and where I was speaking.

The TEDx experience was different though. This was about an idea to share rather than just my life experience. I knew from the get-go what that idea would be, and it stemmed from the events in my life over the past 15 years: what grief taught me about resilience.

It sounded easy enough when I pitched the idea, something I should be able to do in my sleep, but I’ll let you into a secret … it took a whole lot of planning, sleepless nights and practice for the talk to come across as a fireside chat and effortless.

Friends reassuringly said, “You’ll be great, you’ve done these before…” Even so, I knew there was a lot of work to do. It’s like when you sign up to do a marathon. You know if you put in the effort and do the training, you will get through it. And the more you train, the better your result will be. The same goes for doing a TED talk … the more preparation you put in, the more effortless it will seem.

So, while a finished TEDx talk looks so relaxed and conversational, they are heavily practised! I spent nearly a year on the planning; from developing the content, producing the brief PowerPoint and practising the talk. It sounds an easy, straightforward process - it wasn’t.

Resilience is not something we’re born with
First off, there was the question of where to start and what to include? Over the past 15 years since Kenzie died, my life and health have continued to be eventful. My body has continued to malfunction at a great rate of knots. So much so, I’m now living with Parkinson’s disease, I have a chronic degenerative heart condition which is leading me into heart failure, I have endured 10 surgeries for numerous issues, some stemming from complications from my original breast cancer. All of this on top of surviving breast cancer and losing Kenzie to cancer. Life has been a bit of a cruel taskmaster.

All these experiences of grief and loss have taught me invaluable lessons in resilience.

You see, resilience is not something we are born with. It’s something that we can learn. Yes, your personality does influence how you face and respond to life events, but you can leverage these to your advantage.

For example, I’ve always been very self-reliant and was self-aware about what helped me deal with stressors in life. I loved my sport, but not team sport. I liked solitary sports, like swimming, cycling, running, scuba diving … they were meditative, it was my time to think, clear my head, be among nature. I found it calming and therapeutic.

So, when cancer then grief exploded into my life and left it shattered, I turned to what I knew to bring me solace and to help calm the storm in my heart and mind.

The power of others
I knew I could not manage the magnitude of this loss on my own. I needed my family, friends and community. But traumatic grief is too big for them alone. You need someone to steady the ship, to guide you safely through the storm.

They say angels walk among us, and I can verify this is true. My angel came in the form of an amazing psychotherapist, Maxine Burgen Paige. Max had a small foundation, which enabled her to see me at no charge. It was a lifesaver, as I certainly could not have afforded therapy. I was a single mum with very little in the way of resources or disposable income, but therapy was something I desperately needed. Max gave me the strength of resilience to enable me to rebuild my shattered life. I can safely say, I would not be here today if it was not for Max.

It was Max’s gift to me that inspired me to set up Kenzie’s Gift. I wanted to pay the kindness forward that Max had shown to me. I wanted to ensure that young Kiwis and their families had mental health support to rebuild their shattered lives after a serious illness or a traumatic loss. I wanted them to be able to access resources and professional help with registered mental health professionals if they needed it.

It is so important to invest in the mental health and emotional wellbeing of young people and their families who have had to face the unthinkable. 

Condensing my life into 18 minutes
I had to pick apart the aspects of my life experiences over the past 15 years that mattered the most. Which parts though to include? Rebuilding my life? Like going back to university and getting a BA and Post Grad, becoming a breast cancer advocate, championing the Herceptin campaign here in NZ with an amazing group of women, establishing Kenzie’s Gift, the Hope Emerges campaign and embarking on numerous fundraising challenges, such as marathons, adventure races, ocean swims, and iron distance events.

But I needed to narrow the focus and present the audience with a key take away message. Try honing that down from the list above…it was a challenge; I can tell you!

TEDx’s rule is simple: talks are 18 minutes or less. That might seem like a lot of time. Trust me, it isn’t. This time limitation means there is no room for fat. 

A year out from the talk, I drafted a rough outline which covered my life now, to reflections over the past 15 years, the impact of Kenzie’s death, the gift of resilience, the inspiration behind Kenzie’s legacy, stories from some of our young ambassadors, finishing with my final thoughts on life and the power of resilience. Ultimately, the human spirit is stronger than you think.

The end result … is my TEDx talk. Hopefully, I‘ve done it justice and shared some insights that you might find helpful on your own journey.


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