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.

***

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.

Alex1

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.

***

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

Nic_schools

Nic_Ball

Nic-Katespeech