Simone Goldsmith – Suicide Awareness Blog Day

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 11.17.19 AMOn September 10, 2013, the World Health Organization and the International Association for Suicide Prevention will co-sponsor World Suicide Prevention Day. To commemorate this day, the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work invites people to participate in their Suicide Awareness Blog Day.

Here is my story.

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Anyone who met my older sister Alana loved her for the same reasons – her infectious laugh, smile, intellect, natural beauty and kindness. She was the life of any party, especially if there was a karaoke machine.

Only 2 years younger than Alana, I always looked up to her and was never far from her shadow.  Although we were born and raised in Sydney (Australia), we shared a deep love for Japan. We both chose to go to university there but in different parts of the country.

One of my favourite memories is deciding at 5am after a night of clubbing to go to breakfast at the biggest seafood market in the world. Off we went, in our high heels and revealing dresses. As the sun rose so did the faces of the Japanese men packing crates of tuna fish and octopus. They were surprised at what they saw. 2 female — Western, bilingual and all dressed up, walking through smelly fish guts at the crack of dawn.

Alana’s suicide at the age of 23 follows an eating disorder. In her final year she informed doctors that her anorexia began when she was 15 when she had self esteem issues about a boy she liked. We were oblivious to this at the time. Later that year she went on a school exchange to Japan, where she lived with a seaweed growing family. She came home emaciated but explained her weight loss by saying her hosts did not feed her enough. We believed her and over the next year, helped her to regain her health and vitality. Looking back we now know that the eating disorder seed was planted in her brain. The problem ran deeper and the eating disorder had already started to take control.

Alana went on to excel in high school and in her final exams. She secured a scholarship and moved overseas to study Asia-Pacific studies, a mix of economics and sociology. One day a close friend of Alana’s contacted us, concerned with her weight loss and antisocial behaviour. The friend felt she was betraying her friendship with Alana, but was so concerned she felt she had no choice. We regularly asked Alana about her eating and if she was OK. She always insisted everything was fine. Her eating disorder was hiding what was really happening inside of her.

Alana finished her degree and accepted a marketing job overseas. But she came home unexpectedly, which was a cry for help. The depth of her physical and mental illness then became all too obvious. Alana isolated herself. She made plans and accepted invitations, and then would cancel. She didn’t communicate, flew into mad rages and self-harmed. She also stopped caring for herself – she rarely showered or changed her clothes.

Every meal at home with Alana was a battle of wills. We knew that the designated meal plan of 3 meals, morning & afternoon tea & supper was essential to maintaining those hard fought kilos. The trouble was that my family’s voice of love & reason competed with the voices in Alana’s head telling her she’s ugly, a burden, worthless. But calm must prevail. So, after sitting at the dinner table with Alana for as long as each meal took, it would be time for a few games of banana-gram (a non-competitive version of scrabble). This was the recommended strategy to battle the post meal urge to charge out the door in a rage of anxiety & walk until the calories were purged. If we survived the post meal madness then we would have a DVD ready to watch.

At the same time, however, Alana managed to work for a year in Sydney in her first and only job. Part-time as an online marketing co-ordinator for an International company overseeing the Japanese office. It was a totally female office and what was staggering was when Alana had to resign to go into an eating disorder clinic, no one realised that she was sick. [Imagine their shock when a year later we phoned her manager to tell her she was dead.]

Alana was admitted three times to clinics but after running away several times, my dad decided to take her on an overseas holiday, a trip intended to motivate her and get her involved in life again. Whilst there were some signs of progress during the trip, the eating disorder voice still had its control. She returned to Sydney in a medically unstable and depressed state. She entered another clinic but after 5 days, the eating disorder voice decided the struggle was over.

At 1.30pm on the 22nd July 2011, Alana slipped out of the hospital’s fire exit unnoticed (this shocking lapse of care will be the subject of a coronial inquest later this year). 50 minutes later, she took her life. And my life changed forever.

Alana’s sudden passing has taught me many lessons. Above all, it has taught me that suicide does not discriminate. It can happen to people of all nationalities, ages and ethnicities. It can happen to those who come from happy families, have no history of alcohol or drug abuse, live in safe neighbourhoods and appear to have everything.

It has also taught me that if a friend or family member is showing signs of mental illness or suicidal intent, always reach out to them even when it’s hard to know what to say. It takes courage but get involved. Try to address those signs and do not simply rely upon what they are telling you. Do your own research and form your own views. Give them the information they need, pick up the phone if necessary. Remain in constant contact and assure them that they are loved, have reason to live and that you are there for them.

Although an estimated 1 million people take their lives around the world each year, suicide IS preventable. I am sharing my story because I do not want anyone who is reading this to go through the living hell of having a sister, brother, parent, cousin or friend take their life. Believe me, your life doesn’t go back to normal. So we must keep working together to protect ourselves, and our loved ones.

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Since Alana’s passing, Simone has launched a storytelling project called Our New Lives. By offering honest yet interesting discussion, it aims to provide inspiration, information and comfort to the bereaved and to reduce the stigma associated with death, grief and recovery.

If you or a friend are considering suicide please call  Lifeline in Australia or the USA. It is free and confidential.

Alana&I

Angie Cartwright

Angie Cartwright has survived more tragedy and trauma than most. Her grieving began at the age of 5 when she tragically lost her baby sister Erica. Years later her favourite uncle died by suicide, her husband in a car accident, her grandfather by murder (police allege suicide) and her mother to an accidental overdose in 2010. Raised in environment of alcoholism and drug addiction, Angie shares how she turned her life around and how she uses Facebook to help herself and thousands of other bereaved people to heal. In this interview, learn about Angie’s inaugural National Grief Awareness Day which will take place in the US on August 30 — her mother’s birthday.

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You say your grieving process began at the age of 5 when your sister Erica died. How much do you remember about that time? Is that when your Mum’s condition deteriorated?

I can remember vividly all of the circumstances leading up to my sisters’ death. She had been sick for a few days and was crying constantly. My mother took her to the emergency room and when she got back she gave her a bath. Erica had been diagnosed with pneumonia but on the third night she finally rested in the bassinet. The next morning I awoke before everyone else and went to check on her but she didn’t look right. I woke my mother up and told her something was wrong with Erica. My mother ran out of our home screaming down to the fire station in our neighborhood. My mother returned quickly but I believe the trauma had already set in for me and in turn produced a gap in my memory. I truly believe my grief started right after my sister died and I had lost my mother to grief. There were many nights and mornings I found my mother crying over Erica. She always seemed intoxicated during these crying spells. I felt so powerless as a child to help my mother. Children internalize grief, unless they have teachers to guide them in expressing their grief and what to do with that pain. Even at that young age, for some reason, I felt it was my job to fix my mother and make her happy. I went on to lose my mother in other ways later on when she would go off to treatment or drop us off with friends.

You have survived more tragedy & trauma than most, what kept you holding onto life & hope?

I guess before we know hope or the want to live, we have to know the opposites. I knew darkness better than anything else. To get to hope each time was different for me. Sometimes it was my children that gave me the will to fight. Other times it was an internal feeling of I’m not done yet! Hope, I believe, is a gift. I never thought I would have it again after losing my mother but you can experience hope in the middle of grief. Hope never found me I had to go look for it. I had to be willing to do certain things for myself to get there.

How has your grief changed with time?

My grief has changed. But time was not really the factor. It wasn’t until seven years after I lost my husband in a car accident that I started making changes in my life, because after all that time I realized I was no better than when it happened.  When my mother died in 2010 I decided I wouldn’t let this beast called grief take me down like it did in the past. It’s not that I didn’t grieve, I just started changing my behavior. After a year I started to feel better and confident healing was taking place. There is a “cliché” that is said often: “Time heals all wounds.” This is far from the truth. Time cannot heal a broken heart. The grief may ease up, but I believe it’s because we have learned how to manage it.

You were raised in an environment of alcoholism and drug addiction. To what extent did you rely upon substances to deal with your losses?

Being raised in an alcoholic home I was shown that grief and drinking go hand in hand. Honestly I hated alcohol as a child. I always put my mother, sadness, and drinking all together. When I got older I started my own journey with alcoholism. I don’t blame my mother for that, as I had my own choices in life. I used drinking and other substances to numb the pain. As a grieving widow I was given all sorts of medications and today I know those things could not heal my heart. If anything they increase the pain. It allowed me to stay stuck in that pain and time. Like I said previously, seven years after losing my husband, I was no better. Today I know a better way. I have to face those feelings as they come. Easier said than done but it’s possible. After my mother passed from a drug overdose I knew I couldn’t live that life. I am in recovery today, and I deal with emotions from a sober mind and heart.

At what point did you become committed to healing and reinventing yourself? What prompted this and how what changes did you make in your life?

I have become committed to healing many different times in my life. Sometimes I hit the ground running with all sorts of ways to help myself.  When one didn’t work, I would try another. There were those times where I wanted nothing to do with healing. When you have lived a life of loss there can be some resentment that comes up. I got tired of having to be the one to pick up the pieces. Today I don’t feel that way. After my mom died there came a day when I knew no one was going to do this for me. Even if they wanted to It was impossible, I had to want to heal. I never thought the day would come again where I felt that kind of hope again. As I started my healing journey I started reading books lot of books! I found Facebook and started to find other grievers and decided to have a small little grief group. The group was a life changer for me. I had found people who felt like me. They understood me. I think the turning point in re-inventing myself was the day I started to grieve freely. It was necessary. I couldn’t go around “acting” like I was fine. It nearly killed me doing that before. I knew my honesty was going to have to be the largest part of me, anywhere and with anyone.

As part of your healing process you created Facebook groups for the bereaved. You now have 17 which include one specifically for teens and young adults. How do these groups work and differ, and how have they helped you to heal?

Grief The Unspoken is a family. It’s a family no one wants to be a part of. But after a loss it’s the only place for a while that may feel comfortable. Everyone speaks your language. The pressure is off to be a certain way. Our closed groups provide a safe place to let it all out and be yourself. We have guidelines in the groups and basically people post when they feel like it. They don’t have to post. Some are not able to post for a while but they read others feelings and they feel like someone understands. All groups run pretty much the same way. We have a few that are different. We have a diary group. We ask no one to comment on anyone’s post in that group. It’s strictly for writing in a virtual diary. We have one that is for venting, it’s a little more controversial. That group is specifically for intense emotions. Some people cannot handle those kinds of post. I have found the group works really well. They scream and get it out and feel better. I believe the groups help a griever to get to a place where they start wanting help. We are not there to fix them. We are there to support them. We try to let the members know of healers we recommend, and we often share our healing to help them.

From your personal experiences and connecting with others online who have experienced loss, what advice do you have for bereaved youth?

If I was to give any advice to our youth, It would be that it’s okay to grieve. Your feelings are not wrong. I would tell them to educate themselves on grief and ask questions. I believe you’re never too young to learn about grief. Sometimes we don’t have the necessary support needed to make this transition. Like in my youth. So it can be difficult to find support. Many of our youth are on Facebook. The web can be a great tool to aid you along your grief journey. I do have a closed grief group for teens and young adults because they needed a place to go. Another important suggestion is to get help. Being alone in your grief is not good, it will only get worse. Many youth will use alcohol and other substances to cover up pain they have no other way to “deal” with. Sadly some of them will take their lives. Young people need to know feelings are not bad. We need to get them out. I look back in my youth and can see where I chose other things to deal with my grief. At that age “feelings” are not cool. It’s my hope that we get grief education in every school and every grade. We can’t teach them to grieve but we can teach them it’s okay to grieve.

You founded the National Grief Awareness Day which will take place on August 30 – your mother’s birthday. What does this day involve and how can people support your movement?

National Grief Awareness Day is a day to bring grief out of the dark and into the light.  On this day we as educators aim to increase awareness surrounding grief. We will talk about the myths and the clichés. We will be “opening a door” for the griever to come out of hiding. The old ways of looking at grief don’t work. Our grieving need help, not fixed, to be allowed in our society to grieve as long as they need to. Our expectations need to change. Many may think that it is changing, but we are a long way from where we need to be.  I say we are just beginning. Today I saw a griever post that her sister told her to “get over this, your family needs you!” This kind of thinking has been with us for years. It will take years to repair the damage that has already been done.  People don’t always take to change easy. I know I didn’t. At first they may feel like we are attacking people.  Or that we are being overly sensitive. These two things are far from the truth. Somewhere along time ago we were taught all these ideas on grief. We took them for being “the truth “myself included. That was until I started grieving intensely and started to apply all the myths and cliches and they didn’t work and they didn’t make sense.

This will be the first NGAD and I’m beyond excited. On this day we ask you to do anything you can to increase, educate, and support grief and the grieving. We will be using different colored butterflies as our symbol this year. The different colors represent that everyone grieves differently. We are asking people to make grief awareness videos which we will post on our website. We are making banners for people to hang in front of their homes. You can also donate to our cause, even $5 goes a long way. Since this is the first NGAD we are limited on what we can do and need all the help we can get. We hope by next year we will be doing a conference, and getting grief into our schools, treatment centers, doctors, and counselors’ offices. The other thing you can do is to think about  grieving. Ask yourself do I have anyone in my life that may be grieving? Go and see them. Send them some flowers. We ask you to take the topic of grief into your homes. Maybe at dinner that night ask your family what they know about grief. Share what you have learned. Share posts from all the grieving sites on Facebook and the web. We have a huge community full of so many loving and kind people who are helping those in grief.

Kristie West

“It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in… It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.”

Kristie West lost her father Ian 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. Kristie, who currently works as a grief specialist in London, relates how she came to view these events in a positive light. She explains what adults can learn from kids when it comes to death and how the Kiwi’s new Death Cafes hope to impact the bereaved. 

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Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 7.07.28 AMWhat’s one memory with your dad you will always cherish?

A specific memory doesn’t come to mind…but when I think of him I hear him saying “go for it Kid” which is what he said about every new travel adventure, country move or new plan I made.

You lost your father 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. What are your overriding memories of this initial grief period?

The overwhelming feeling initially, after the first few hysterically painful hours, was the numbness that took over and stayed with me for months. It wasn’t a comfortable or painless numbness.  In a way I felt like a rock – and there is nothing light and easy about being a rock.  Everything felt trapped in my body and I physically hurt all the time.  At the time it was a coping mechanism and is incredibly common – so many people feel very numb and then feel guilty as this is not how they believe they ‘should’ feel and not what others expect them to feel either.

You no longer view these events in a negative light, rather you see them as important, profound and deserving of respect. What were the reasons for this change in perspective? 

Getting to this space of complete healing is something I believe is possible for anyone who wants it…but it takes work. This type of healing is not passive so simply waiting for time to pass or spending endless hours (or months or years) talking about it won’t bring this kind of change.  I went looking for true healing. Something in me told me that I didn’t just have to live with the pain, and that surely the last legacy was his loved ones in pieces, unable to talk about him easily, and thinking about him less and less over time.  He deserved more than that, as did we, and I just knew there had to be another way.  On my journey for ‘another way’ I found processes that, with my effort and support from others, truly changed these events in my life forever. This is the work I now do with others.

Do you ever feel disrespectful and/or have moments when you experience surges of grief?

For me…never. I did so much work around these deaths in my life that I haven’t had anything painful come up around them since. When something is completely healed it means there is no pain.

I don’t feel at all disrespectful. I understand that people can see it that way, which is very unfortunate as this belief (that it is respectful to be in loads of pain) is one of the things that can keep people hanging on to pain after a death, unwilling to let it go.  The reality is that having no pain around my dad means I can think about him as easily as I think about my mum who is alive and well.  I feel connected to him, when I think of him I smile, and thoughts of my dad don’t ever hurt me… so I never need to ignore them.  No-one ever needs to apologise to me for bringing up my father and days that remind me of him are good days… not bad days.  Few people can say that.  Surely no one wants their memory to be a source of pain to those who love them. This certainly isn’t what I would want for myself and I think it is one of the greatest gifts we can give those we love who have died.

You’re a grief specialist. Why do you think people tend to view death in a negative way? 

We are actually very conditioned in how we see death. Everything in life has two sides but we have been taught – by our families often and by society – that death is only bad and sad and something to avoid and hope no one we love ever goes through.  We see it as horrible and meaningless. Even for those who believe that death plays an important role and has a point or happened for a reason i.e. often those who are religious or spiritual, they don’t have any way to actually experience it that way as they have been conditioned in the same way.

We teach children from very young about how to feel and act around death.  A small child, trying to understand death and make sense of what has happened might “I’m so sad grandad has died…but it’s good that he can’t eat the black jellybeans anymore because those are my favourites”.  And how do we react to that? As adults we often berate them and tell them that this is a terrible thing to say, that it is very sad that grandad is dead, and not to let your grandmother hear you say things like that.

Kids have their eyes open to all the different elements and impacts of death and we adults teach them something different, just like we were taught.

Kids, left to their own devises, have a lot to teach adults about dealing with death openly and naturally.

What advice do you have for bereaved youth who want to see the joy, beauty, meaning and truth in a death – without risking glorifying it?

It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in.  It can bond us to people, send us on a new path, cause us to soul-search for answers to very big questions about ourselves. It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.

If I could give just one simple piece of advice it would to stay open through the experience. Stay open to everything and don’t block out or ignore anything that could seem positive because it seems ‘disrespectful’.  We respect and honour those who have died far more when we can see how even in their death they added to our lives and changed the world for the better.  Because that is a beautiful legacy to leave.

Tell us about the Death Cafes you have recently began and what impact you hope they will have on the bereaved?

In June I started running regular online Death Cafes and they have been attended by people from all over the world. These are very different to my work and I am very clear with participants that the Death Cafes have a different purpose to my work, aren’t a kind of grief support group, and that I don’t teach or coach through them. I take off my G.R.I.E.F. specialist hat and simply hold the space for open discussions around any element of death people would like to discuss, which is what the whole movement is really about.

To my mind they can specifically benefit bereaved people in 2 ways – firstly they give them a space where it is ok to talk about death. Secondly they can be exposed, with a new level of openness, to people sharing things around death that are different to the norm.  I ran one death cafe where one participant talked about how the death of someone close to him had made him the man he was today. It was very inspiring and beautiful and other people started to contemplate their own experiences in different ways too.

But the point of Death Cafe it not to push this on people – whatever conversations come up come up and we go with them. The space is really just about open conversations around death.

Carly Marie

Carly

“Here was this beautiful little boy that I was suppose to raise and there I was trying to work out how I could squeeze a lifetime of memories into a few short hours. The grief was so heavy I couldn’t believe it was even possible to be in that much pain and still be alive.”

These are the words of Carly Marie, who at the age of 25, tragically experienced the stillbirth of her son Christian. Six years on, Carly explains why “time heals all wounds” is a myth and that it is what you do in that time that counts. Discover Carly’s profound gift that she uses to help other parents worldwide through their darkness.

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You tragically experienced the stillbirth of your son Christian in 2007. What is your dominant memory of the initial period of grief?

When I think of that time in my life the most dominant memory that I have was the night times and how I yearned for him. Christian was born in the middle of the night and so each night I would relive the time that we had him with us. In that first year of grief, my night times were very ritualistic. I created an altar in memory of him in our home. I would burn candles each evening  for him and I would play music. I was listening to a lot of Ben Harper at the time so hearing any song from his Both Sides Of The Gun album will send me straight back into that time. Even though we only had Christian with us for about 10 hours I have many memories of him. The one memory that is always in the forefront of my mind is when my midwife gave him to me to hold for the first time. The love that I felt at that very moment was indescribable. Here was this beautiful little boy that I was suppose to raise and there I was trying to work out how I could squeeze a lifetime of memories into a few short hours. The grief was so heavy I couldn’t believe it was even possible to be in that much pain and still be alive.

Butterfly

How has your grief changed over the years?

I guess you could say my grief has changed dramatically. At first I struggled to get out of bed and now, I struggle finding the time to get into bed. I have been through so many stages that I feel I have some sort of partnership with grief now. At first it was heavy and the disbelief that I had a child that had died was very prominent. Some days I still cannot believe that one of my children is not with us. Around the 18 month point the sunlight began to filter back into my life.  Now, I am 6 1/2 years out from losing Christian and my grief is still there. I think it always will be there. If I were to stop grieving him, surely that would mean that I would have stopped loving him and clearly that is never going to happen. My grief has transformed. Time does not heal anything. That is a myth. It is what you do in that time that will change things for you. You have to make a conscious effort to heal. At first all I wanted was crawl under a rock and die but thankfully my first born daughter was there. I needed to heal for her and so I chose healing. But now I want more than that. I want to grow and learn, love and live my life to the fullest. I feel so thankful that I am being given the opportunity to grow a little older and wiser each day. It is a gift that so many of us are denied. My life is more beautiful than ever right now. I am in absolute awe and wonder of life and death now. It is all very magical to me. I feel that death is not an ending, just a transformation. Christian died so very young and for so long I questioned why he had to die before he got a chance to live. After some time of having this question eat away at me, I decided to give up on it because I will never truly understand in this life why he had to go and so wondering why serves me no good purpose at all. Once I let go of that question I believe I was set free from the heaviness of grief.

You have pursued many different paths of healing. What inspired Project Heal and the Seashore of Remembrance, and how have these helped you?

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True healing began for me on August 19th 2008, about 19 months after Christian had been born. I dreamed that I saw him on the beach and that he was writing his name in the sand. In my dream, he was perfectly healthy and whole. The dream lit a fire in my heart and so I began a project called Christian’s Beach. Since that day in 2008 I have written over 17,700 babies and children’s names in the sand under sunsets at Mullaloo Beach in Perth Western Australia. I have received requests from bereaved parents from all over the world. After speaking and sharing my story with so many people from across the globe, I realized that I needed put my experience together into a website for others to read and so Project Heal is now a guide for those who are walking the road of baby loss. It is filled with community projects and events and ways to heal and grow from your experience

I am always exploring new ways of expressing my grief through my art and photography at the beach and so a few years ago I opened my Memorial Art Website called The Seashore of Remembrance. All of my artwork there is to honour the lives of people who have passed away at any age or gestation.

Being able to share my experience, artwork and photography has played a such an important role in my healing. It has helped me connect to my son and learn more about myself and who I am becoming, not only as an artist but as a mother and a woman. It also gives my son a legacy which will mean that his life will touch the hearts of others and that he will never be forgotten and that is all that I could hope for.

SunsetScreen shot 2013-08-09 at 6.00.00 AMmiracles

You also write for Still Standing Magazine and are involved in The STILL Project, a documentary film project committed to breaking the silence about pregnancy loss and infant death. Why is it so important to speak out and connect with others in similar situations?

When Christian died, it felt as if somebody had come and abducted us in the middle of the night, taken us out into the desert, pushed us out of their moving car and then tossed a note out of the window that just said “Good Luck”. We were left on our own in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how we would get back home. We were lost and we felt so alone. I later found out that my grandmother had suffered through the loss of multiple children. 3 stillborn babies and 3 babies that she miscarried including twins. My beautiful nan lived a very tragic life and having her husband taken as a prisoner of war in Burma for 4 years, she was left to grieve in silence on her own. She never spoke of them. It broke my heart to think that she never even named her precious children who left too soon. She took her silence to her grave.

Christian dying opened up so many conversations with my friends and family and I could not believe the number of people that I knew who had either suffered the same kind of loss or knew someone who did. I thought my story was rare because nobody speaks about the babies that die before they are born, they are seen as sad circumstances rather than human beings. People don’t have to suffer in silence like this anymore. Why do we have to be quiet on death? Everybody dies. It doesn’t matter what your age is. There is no escaping it. I sometimes wonder if the death of babies is just too tragic to speak about and so people just close up and pretend it doesn’t happen so that they do not have to deal with it. The truth is most people are afraid of upsetting the parents who have suffered the loss. You don’t have to come up with something that will fix the person. There is nothing you can say that will heal this kind of hurt. But what you can do is ask your friend or family member about their baby. You can ask them that if they would like to share about their baby then you are there and ready to LISTEN to them. If you don’t know what to say, tell your friend that. Just let them know that you are here for them. Most of the time people just want someone to listen to them anyway.

Writing for Still Standing Magazine is a complete honour for me. The writers there are so beautifully brave and they along with all the readers are working to break the silence surrounding the death of babies so that people will not suffer in silence anymore. My friend Franchesca is the editor of the magazine and if it wasn’t for her beautiful daughter Jenna Belle, the magazine would not exist. These babies that die leave such incredible legacies, just like Elena’s legacy – The STILL Project. This film will be such a gift to not only to the 1 in 4 people who will experience the loss of a baby but the 3 in 4 who won’t. It will be an honest and raw look at what it is like to suffer such a loss. If people can begin to understand the loss of a baby without having to experience it, this will break down a lot of walls in society and mourning the loss of a baby will be accepted because it will be more understood. It is all about love, compassion, education and acceptance.

Stand Still Still Project

If you could whisper words of comfort to newly bereaved parents of babies, what would you say?

I would say, I am so sorry that this has happened to you, it is so cruel and unfair but know that you are not alone in this. There are so many people out there who understand your pain. It is okay to feel whatever you are feeling. Do whatever helps to comfort your own heart. Don’t be afraid to seek help from others, whether it is professional counselling or friendship from those who truly understand your pain. The Internet is filled with amazing charities and organizations that have groups of people for you to talk to and you do not even have to leave the comfort of your home. My hope for you is that within time you will begin to see the light again and that you will find the many gifts that your child’s life has left for you and will continue to leave for you. Your baby may not be here anymore but just like all the babies that are born healthy and alive your baby is a miracle and a gift to you and this Earth.

And lastly, how has Christian’s brief life shaped the person you are today?

My life is filled with so many crazy wonderful and heartfelt experiences because of my son. Since Christian died, I have met the most beautiful people from all over the world. The path that Christian has opened up for me is so incredibly awe inspiring. I have no idea where it is taking me and I love that. I am eternally grateful for his short life here on Earth. He has and is teaching me so many things. I get asked so often, if I could go back in time would I erase his loss from my past, so that I would not know such heartache. I would never choose to do that. Having him for one day was worth all the pain and heartache that followed and although he is not here physically to grow with me, I am still his mother and I always will be. Nothing can ever change that. He didn’t get to live his life here on Earth, so I am living this life not only for me but for him too.

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For more information, visit carlymarieprojectheal.com

Molly Carlile

Screen shot 2013-08-05 at 9.44.35 PMNEW INTERVIEW: Molly Carlile — more commonly known as The Death Talker — looks forward to the day when conversations about death and grief are as commonplace as conversations about sex, celebrities and politics. An ambassador for Dying To Know Day, Molly details how she began her unconventional career, the inspiration behind this inaugural event and why it’s so important to foster these conversations.

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You are known as the Deathtalker. What exactly do you do?
I talk about death, grief and life in the community, to health professionals and at conferences in Australia and internationally.

How and why did you get into this career?
I looked after my first dying patient when I was a very junior nurse. She was a young woman, struggling with how to talk to her children about her impending death and it made me realise that people need a whole lot more than physical pain relief when they are dying (though that is important). That lady inspired me to challenge my own fears and apprehensions about not being able to ‘fix’ every patient I cared for and that my idea of ‘fixing’ things was often very different from the actual need of each individual person I was likely to care for. From that point I was committed to true, holistic, person-centred care, which set me on a path of learning that continues to this day. I specialised in palliative care, then studied, counselling, then grief and bereavement, then I did an education degree and a company director’s diploma, all of these things evolved as I tried to know myself better and find a way of informing others and empowering to take back ownership of their own death. This evolved into years of teaching, talking but most importantly LISTENING to the experiences of people and taking on board the wisdom their stories contained.  I consider myself really fortunate to have found my ‘niche’ very early in my career and never would have dreamed that a single experience would define my future path or that it would include becoming an author and playwright. To date I’ve had a most fortunate life.

Have you personally experienced the loss of a loved one?
My Dad deteriorated slowly over a number of years during which we became even closer than we’d been in the past. I looked after him for the last two weeks of his life and stroked his hair and spoke quietly to him as he took his last breaths. I nursed him, I counselled him and supported him, but at the end of the day, he was more than a patient… he was my Dad. This was an enlightening experience for me on a number of levels and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it, sad though I was when he died. Not sad for him, but sad for me, for our family, having to keep going without him.

Were you able to talk openly about your loss and your feelings with those around you?
When you’re the partner, the children, the siblings and the Mum of “The Deathtalker,” these conversations are commonplace! My own family and my extended family all talk openly about death and grief and I hope that’s got a tiny bit to do with me making it a safe conversation. We talked a lot about Dad’s death… we still do, nine years later. But mostly we talk about him. We tell his stories (and try to improve on them). We sing his songs. We use his wacky sayings and on his birthday, at Christmas… in fact whenever we get together, we compare our memories of Dad. We cried a lot at first, now mostly we laugh… my Dad was a funny bloke!

You are the ambassador for Dying to Know Day. What and when is this inaugural event?
Dying to Know Day is being celebrated for the first time on August 8th 2013… this week! It’s a day dedicated to having meaningful conversations about death and grief, life and legacy. But it’s not just about THE DAY… it’s about encouraging people to inform themselves and to become empowered so that meaningful conversations can happen when they need to without people feeling too scared or anxious about initiating them… any time, any where. I’m proud to be the Dying to Know Day Ambassador… I firmly believe “the more we talk, the less we fear”… that’s my motto.

What was the inspiration behind it and what does it hope to achieve?
Dying to Know Day on August 8th encourages all Australians to take action toward more open and honest conversations about death, dying and bereavement. Inspired by the Igniting Change book Dying to know, D2K Day is a not for profit community day of action initiated by The GroundSwell Project. The aim of Dying to Know Day is to encourage all Australians to develop new knowledge and attitudes about how to deal with death and bereavement and support each other at the end of life. Dying to Know Day inspires local initiatives and promotes information to enable all Australians to discuss and plan their wishes.

Why is it so important to foster conversations about death and grief?
It concerns me that people of my generation still struggle with the reality of their own mortality. I despair sometimes at western culture’s obsession with youth and beauty and feel for people who succumb to the pressure to meet these unrealistic expectations. All of this happens because we are ill informed and ill equipped to have meaningful conversations about aging, death and grief. We need to rediscover the importance of connecting on an intergenerational level, to learn from older people and to nurture and support younger people. It is only then that we will be able to talk openly and honestly about death, our fears and apprehensions, our hopes and dreams. These are the conversations that inform and empower people to face the inevitability of their own death and equip them to support friends and family who are grieving. I look forward to the day when conversations about death and grief are as commonplace as conversations about sex, celebrities and politics. It is only then that we will have become a truly compassionate society that nurtures and cares for its vulnerable members. Only then will grieving people suffer in isolation, if that’s THEIR CHOICE, not because they have to.

How can people get involved in Dying to Know Day?
They can check out the website. There are a number of events happening all over Australia, these are listed hereYou can also join the conversation on Facebook or start a conversation with the people you love – here are some tips, ideas and resources.

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Alex Bannon

Alex2Alex Bannon tragically lost both parents before the age of 16 — her father to a heart attack and her mother to cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. Now aged 18, the Sydney native shares how she manages sudden surges of grief and what we can learn from her aunty.

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What is one memory with your mother & father you will always remember?

I’ll always remember how strong and brave my mum was on the day she told me  she only had two months left to live. I remember her coming into my room after I’d been crying. She saw the tears in my eyes and held my hands and looked me in the eyes and whispered “Alex, it’s okay, I’m going to be okay. I know that my prayers to God weren’t exactly answered but maybe that’s the purpose. Maybe my purpose in life was to give strength to others and die as a legacy and that’s okay. It’s time.”

In regards to my dad, I’ll always remember the countless trips to his work. He was the Marketing Manager at the Powerhouse Museum and I always wanted to go with him because I loved their chocolate pebble machine. I remember running a muck around his work but him being completely fine with it. I’ll also always remember that he was such an involved father. Even though his job kept him busy, he never missed a Father’s Day activity at school.

Your father died suddenly; did having a warning about your mother’s death lessen the pain at all? 

My father passed when I was seven years old from a heart attack. It was my brother who had found him, then me. Our mother was on a holiday in China with her two sisters but flew home immediately. I don’t think there is ever a right age or time to lose someone but with saying that, I was so young when my dad suddenly passed away.

After everything we had been through with my dad I thought nothing could ever happen to my family again. But on the 25th January 2011, my mum was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma- a rare cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. I watched her go through countless chemotherapy, radiation, hallucinations, wake up in ICU. Having a parent with cancer just became part of my life, the idea that one day my mum would be cancer free gave peace to my mind, but somewhere deep down I knew it was long journey to go. We were told she’d have two months on the 22nd March 2012 when my brave mother decided to stop all treatment and spend what quality time she had left at home with her loved ones. She knew in her heart that no matter how many more needles they stick into her that she was terminal and that it was her time. 13 days later, on the 4th of April, my amazing mother sadly passed away at our home surrounded by her family and friends whom she loved.
 
I didn’t have as much time with my dad as I’d had with my mum. When my dad passed I wasn’t subject to thinking about every detail in the future and how his death would affect my life. But with mum it was a totally different thing because I was a teenager. Although I had a warning, I knew it was still going to hurt. I was not only grieving the fact that she was going to die but was also dealing with the loss of our future together — her being there on my wedding day and becoming a grandma. The warning didn’t necessarily lessen the pain of losing our mother-daughter bond and my only parent but being told she’d have two months left really bought everything into perspective and made me appreciate every aspect of life. That’s one thing that I always think about; that it shouldn’t take your mum to tell you she has cancer and two months left to live in order to tell her how much you love and thank her everyday for everything she has done and to appreciate everything around you.
 
How often do you experience surges of grief and how do you manage these? Where do you find peace?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that grief isn’t a period of time that you pinpoint, experience, and then move on from. I’ve learnt that I’ll always be grieving the death of my parents, but over time can learn how to deal with it in a better way. I can never predict when I’ll experience surges of grief. It’ll catch me at the most random of times, for example, I’ll be driving and suddenly remember a memory and burst out into tears. I’ve learnt that everyone deals with grief in their own way and that if you fight your feelings, you will only make things worse for yourself. So now when I need to cry I will and when I need time alone I’ll have it. I also remind myself often that it’s okay not being strong all the time, that I can breakdown and that it’s normal. After all of this I think of a really happy memory, smile and say to myself, “Okay until next time” and continue with what I was previously doing, which I guess can be kind of weird but that’s just the how I manage my grieving.

I believe that peace is a really hard concept to define. I think that there’s a huge misconception about what it is. I think people believe that peace is something that when you have it, you’re suddenly enlightened and your set for the rest of your life. But in my opinion I believe that peace is a constant struggle. Some days you feel you have it and you feel really great but on other days you don’t and you feel really down. But peace for me means having those moments where you say to yourself “I’m going to be okay, I’m happy right now and that might change tomorrow and that’s okay, but for now I’m happy and I’m going to embrace it”. Peace for me nowadays is in the simplest of things and I believe in living for those simple things in life. Like someone picking up your pen that you dropped to someone unexpectedly making you smile and laugh. That is where I find peace; when I’m happy. And some people may read that and think that’s a really weird way of finding peace and that’s okay, but for me that is what puts a smile on my face and brings me peace. But in a spiritual perception, I know its cliché but I do find peace in natural beauty — sunrises and sunsets, starts and birds flying in the sky. I also really do believe that music has the ability to help anyone go through any situation or stage in life they’re in and that it can help him or her on the road to recovery. I’d recommend the artist Matt Corby to anyone. Music like his really soothes the mind and soul and get generally put you in a better mood and can help with one’s mind finding peace. But I know that finding peace is different for every one; it’s something I believe that you find on your own terms in your own time in life.

I also believe we write our own stories, and each time we think we know something, we don’t. Perhaps peace exists somewhere between the world of learning how to grieve and actually grieving and that in peace comes from knowing that you just can’t know it all. Life is funny that way. Once you let go of the wheel, you might end up where you belong.

Are you able to talk openly to your friends about what you have been through?

I am now at a point in my life where I can talk about what I’ve been through. If anyone, not just my friends, were to ask me I would openly tell them. I never want what has happened to me affect the conversations I have with people. I don’t want them to feel like they need to walk on seashells around me or avoid anything to do with my parents so I try and incorporate memories of my mum and dad into relevant conversations. I believe in finding the light in every situation no matter how dark it is. Just because both my parents have passed doesn’t mean their memories have too. Spirits not only stay alive just by thinking about them; I believe it’s by talking and sharing stories about them. I believe that everyone is born with the ability to change someone’s life for the better so as vulnerable as my past is, if it can help or connect anyone to a similar situation then it’s totally worth opening up about.

You currently live happily with your aunty. What can others learn from how your aunty acts towards you?

It’s really uncanny because living with my aunty was something I originally I never expected or wanted. Two months after my mum passed I made a decision to move out because I could no longer live with my mum’s partner whom she had married 5 months before she passed. I expressed how I was feeling to two of my close family friends on a Sunday in July and the next day I packed my suitcase and hand bag, shoved everything I could into both and without him knowing I moved in with a family friend. I was living with her and her daughter for six weeks and it was so great but I knew I had to figure out my next move. This ended up being my aunty’s house where I am now with two of my cousins. I’ve never looked back after making that decision and have never been happier.

I can’t pinpoint how my Aunty has helped me but I know that she is a major reason for where I am today. She always lets me know that she is there for me no matter what and would support me in any decision I make. My aunty also gave me all the time in the world; to find my own ground and get back up on my own two feet. I think that’s important for others to realise, that people will heal in their own way and time and that it shouldn’t feel forced. Something important as well that I really want to express is that no matter how much advice you have offered to you and no matter how many times someone tries to help you in their own way, that it’s important to remember that advice that has worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. I believe that in time you find your own way of dealing with things so you should not get frustrated when you’re struggling. Also, at the end of the day no one can heal yourself but you. Advice from others can only go so far,  it’s you that has to make the decision to keep moving. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re your own person and you are finding your place in this world and if that means taking all the time in the world then so be it. I also believe it’s important to recognise that you can’t help what has happened to you in the past, but you decide where to go in future; that you are not the mistakes, the downfalls- you are what you choose to be today and how you treat the people around you. My aunty really helped me come to this understanding and I hope it’s something that more people become conscious of.

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Kate Fitzsimons

Although 4 years apart in age, Kate and Nicole Fitzsimons shared everything from clothes to secrets, dreams and birthdays. But in October last year, Kate lost her older sister in a tragic road accident while holidaying in Thailand. The 21-year-old has since established the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation which aims to raise awareness of travel safety overseas and offers financial assistance to gifted performing artists and sportspeople. Based in Sydney, she responds to the common belief that siblings are “forgotten mourners” and shares how those around her can help her to heal.

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NicKateTell us about the special bond you shared with Nic.

Nicole never, ever let me down. It didn’t matter if she was half way around the world, or just sleeping in her room down the hall, or even in my own bed for that matter, she was always there for me. Nicole was my words of wisdom and advice; the one I could turn to no matter what and know that I would be greeted with a larger than life voice that would bounce off the walls and give me an uplifting speech about always following your passion, and don’t be scared if it takes you along the path less travelled. Nicole’s incredible words of inspiration have shaped the way I live my life, and made me the person I am today. Many people thought we were twins not only because of our similar appearances, but because of this incredible bond & how we shared everything – our clothes, our bathroom, our bedrooms, our beds, our secrets, our values, our dreams even our birthdays.

What’s one memory with her you will always cherish?

It sounds strange, but my fondest memories with my sister were actually shared in the bathroom where we’d get ready together before the day ahead or a big night out. As she was such a busy butterfly, our ‘bathroom time’ getting ready together was ‘our time’ for just the two of us where we could talk openly and honestly like only sisters can. These conversations are something I will forever cherish and miss terribly and as strange as it sounds, our bathroom will always be a very special place for me now.

Another  special memory of Nic is when she went through a stage of being ‘scared of the dark’ when she was about 21 years old (haha yes, our Nickers was definitely one of a kind!), and she used to wake up in the middle of the night scared and crawl into my bed next to me to try to get back to sleep. I would give anything to go back to that moment in time in having her sleeping peacefully next to me. That’s truly how close our bond was – no matter what time of day or night, we were always there for one another.

Nic’s life was tragically cut short last year in Thailand. What happened?

After working tirelessly all year on The Footy Show, whilst balancing dance teaching and side-line eye commentating for ‘Hawkesbury Radio’, Nic was so excited to be taking a well-deserved holiday to Thailand with her partner Jamie in October last year. We were all following  her holiday in ‘paradise’ on Instagram — they were  having the most amazing time and even secured their plans to get married the following year. But on the 20th October 2012 at 3:37am I was awoken by a phone call that literally shattered our lives.

Nic and Jamie were turning into the driveway of their hotel in Koh Samui when they were blindsided by a local motorbike rider speeding on the wrong side of the road at 80km/hour. Nearly all impact was to her head and she was rushed into surgery but lost her brave fight for life three hours later.

Have you since been able to talk openly about the accident and your feelings with those around you?

Talking about the accident itself always hurts but I have learned how to cope with speaking about it. Video footage of my sister’s accident was aired on television, and as much as it hurts to watch, I now include it in my Travel Safety Presentations to help students understand that the ‘unthinkable’ does happen and you don’t have to be doing anything ‘wrong’ to find yourself in serious trouble. Because I know that by talking about Nic’s accident I am helping to save lives, I actually feel empowered rather than overwhelmed by it now.

As for how I am coping, I am very open and honest with others about my feelings of grief. Instead of writing my emotions into a private journal, I openly post Facebook updates on my page, as well as my sister’s ‘In Loving Memory’ page. Why? Well firstly I know that so many of my sister’s friends are hurting as well and we find comfort in each others words and knowing we are travelling along this unpredictable emotional roller coaster together. But secondly, ‘loss’ is universal. Every single one of us will experience it at some stage in our life, and I hope that by sharing my emotions and how I am coping with others I can help them along their own journey of grief and inspire them to rise above it along with me.

I believe if you suppress your feelings, they will bottle up inside and completely tear you apart. Nine months on and I still have those days where I literally sit at home feeling lost, confused, and aching for my sister. But I have learned it is all about finding the balance between grieving for the life I once lived, and embracing the life I now have – so I smile and laugh as often as I can, and cry and reflect whenever I need to.

What helps you to heal?

Through establishing a Foundation in honour of Nicole’s legacy and the amazing community that has formed around it, my heart is filled with strength and courage to rebuild my life in a way that will make my sister proud. So in March this year, I walked away from my corporate career to dedicate myself full-time to the Foundation and my goal to present our Travel Safety campaign to as many high schools around Australia as I can. This has been the most important part of the healing process for me because saving lives through sharing Nicole’s story is now a passion that runs deep within me and gives me a sense of fulfilment I cannot find else where.

Getting up on stage & speaking about Nicole & her incredibly legacy, and seeing the inspiring impact it has on people is priceless. Reading the amazing messages of support makes my heart glow like nothing else on this earth. Being able to witness the incredible difference Nicole’s presence makes in people’s life is the reason I look forward to tomorrow.

More simple things I have found helpful include reading inspiring quotes from people who have also endured tough times, and making sure I still allow time for ‘me’ by working out daily in the gym which is a huge passion of mine & helps me to feel better no matter what is going on in my day. In the early days of losing Nic I also invested myself into learning more about the spiritual world through reading books by reputable ‘mediums’, such as Allison Dubois & Ezio De Angelis, to help secure my faith that my sister’s spirit lives on outside the hands of time and learn how to open my heart to her presence that continues to surround me.

I also heal by enjoying the tranquility of sunrises and the promise of a brand new day they bring. For my family,  sunrises fill our hearts with hope, and allow us to feel an intimate connection with Nicole as it was her favourite time of the day. Looking back the sunrise I captured on the morning we lost Nic, I know it was her beautiful spirit shining through and reminding me that even the darkest nights end and the sun will rise. This gives me gives me the strength to make the most out of every single day – that is how she lived life, and would want me to live life, even without her by my side.

How can those around you assist you on this journey?

I think the number one thing friends need to remember is that my road to recovery is a long one, so please be patient with me. I have found that tidal waves of grief can hit you off your feet at any moment, so by having a good support network around you that understands this is really important. They need to help you embrace and celebrate the good times when you can, and be there to hold you and listen when you need to cry. The thing that hurts me the most is when I try and talk about my sister or how I am feeling, and friends change the topic because they don’t know what to do or say. But by now I know the friends who are really good at dealing with these conversations and emotions so I know who I can turn to when I need someone to help me cope with how I am feeling. I also think people need to be aware of what they are saying around those who have lost loved ones – it hurts to hear others sit there and complain about the small things in ‘wrong’ life and taking things for granted, instead of realising how blessed they are for all they have been given in life and making the most of it.

Also, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help from those around you.  I had several sessions with a spiritual healer, Katrina, whose care, compassion & ability to delve into the depths’ of my soul was a truly uplifting experience. Through Reiki and many deep discussions, Katrina taught me how to stay in the light of my sister’s love through keeping the connection we shared alive in my heart. By allowing me to get in touch with my soul’s essence, Katrina helped to expand my self-awareness and develop my own spiritual path to healing. I would not be where I am today without her guidance and she will continue to play a vital role in my journey to recovery and self-discovery.

Siblings are often known as the “forgotten mourners.” Does this apply to you?

Not at all. My Mum, Dad, Brother, Sister-in-law and myself have been a united circle of love, strength and support for one another. I am closer to my mum and dad more than ever as we learn how to live in our home that is far too quiet without Nic. My parents are really supportive of my decision to give up my corporate career and have given me an important role in managing the Foundation and becoming the ‘face’ of the Travel Safety Campaign in schools around Australia. They still make a huge effort to ensure we catch up as a family once a week for lunch or dinner, and I have a handful of close friends who are amazing at doing special little things to show that they are thinking of me and always here for me.

Most importantly, my family still recognises me as an ‘individual’ in my own right and not just in my sister’s ‘shadow’. Last month my parents organised a huge 21st birthday party for me at home which meant so much to me as they chose to rise above the ache of missing Nic to celebrate all I had achieved and overcome in my life so far. This was particularly special as Nicole’s birthday is only 5 days before mine, so for my parents to be able to deal with the overwhelming emotions of Nicole’s first birthday without her, whilst organizing a big birthday event for me is testament to the fact that I am loved, remembered and celebrated just as much as Nicole will always be.

You and your family have set up a Foundation in Nic’s memory. What was the inspiration behind the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation and what does it aim to achieve?

The Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation has been established to continue Nic’s legacy of helping others to fulfil their life aspirations. In honour of Nic’s love for dance and football, we offer financial assistance to passionate and gifted performing artists and sportspeople who need assistance in reaching their full potential. The Foundation also aims to raise awareness of travel safety overseas.

My passion to educate other Australians on travel safety ignited when I started researching into accidents overseas just after losing Nicole and discovering just how many hundreds of Australians meet the same tragic fate as my sister. Through sharing Nicole’s story & some alarming statistics I open students eyes to the fact that the ‘unthinkable’ does happen, but I also offer them some really practical tips to help prevent it from happening to them, or to prepare them if it does happen to them, by highlighting the importance of travel insurance. I am dedicated to doing everything within my power to save as many families as I can from suffering this heart ache.

It is very overwhelming to look back on how far my family has travelled in just nine short months that have also felt like a lifetime. The Foundation has given our lives a whole new purpose, and taken us along a journey that is beyond what words can describe. There are some people who say ‘I wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing with the Foundation’ but most people do not have Nicole as a sister, and now as a guardian angel, who’s given our family so, so much to live for. There was every possibility after losing the love of our life we could have just dwelled on the pain & huge hole that now weighs heavy in our hearts. But that would mean turning our backs on Nicole & everything she lived for, everything she taught & everything she left behind as a gift for us to grow & share to help make a difference in the lives of others. Nicole’s Foundation has really helped our family and has enabled us to help others. Growing from great tragedy is possible if you allow it into your life. I now focus my energy on being grateful of having the honour of being the sister of such an inspirational young woman who has shaped the person I am today & how I can continue to carry her forward with me through the Foundation to shape the lives of thousands more.

Nicole’s friend Lyndell Harradine has recently released her debut album “Everywhere” in memory of Nicole – check out her angelic voice and heartfelt lyrics here.

For more information on the Foundation, visit nicolefitzsimons.com

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