Each year leading a handful of those in the community going through a cancer journey themselves or with a loved one share their story. These are the people the efforts of Pink Arrow help in the community. They’re friends and neighbors. You may not even know how cancer has touched them. This series of stories are written by the person you will read about or by someone on their behalf. We thank them for sharing their story and the courage to battle cancer in some way.
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Pamela Topolinski and her son Patrick Kargl share their stories about how Gilda’s Club of Lowell has helped them deal with grief after the death of a family member. Gilda’s Club helps support individuals and families dealing with more than cancer.
We were asked to tell you our stories.
They are stories of loss and sadness, and grieving from a mother and for a brother. Unlike a lot of the other people who have come to Gilda’s club for help and support with illness and the loss of loved ones to illness we lost our son and brother to a tragic “no forewarning” accident.
I am the mother of five children ages 16 to 24. I’ve been divorced for the past ten years. I foolishly used to believe that once a person has a great tragedy in their life they have “paid their dues” and somehow become exempt from further tragedies. I know now that unfortunately doesn’t work that way.
I was very blessed to have five perfect, healthy babies. I would say I am a good mother but used more of a “hands off” approach most of the time – encouraged independence early on. Although I enjoyed my children as babies, toddlers, preschoolers, pre-teens, I find I much more enjoy them as teenagers and young adults. I enjoy talking to them and hearing how wise they can be, not necessarily “book smarts” (although they are very book smart) but just their insights and views of the world around them. Why some things in life upset them and others do not. I am excited for each one to start their lives away from me, away from dependence.
I had two girls first, Alyssa and Christi. Then I had Joseph. His birth was a bit scary, our Joseph was not anxious to breathe upon his arrival. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. It seemed like a LONG time that the obstetrician had to massage his little chest to get his heart and lungs going, yet it was probably less than a minute. He cried loud after that. My first baby boy! I thought our family was complete but seeing Joseph’s sisters and the little neighbor girls parade him down our street when he was 2 years old wearing a little dress and fancy little girl shoes I realized Joseph may need a brother. So, my wish came true and Jeremy was born. Only 19 months later Patrick arrived, a delightful yet unplanned surprise to our family.
The only tragedy in my life up to that point was my older brother Donald being violently taken from our family by a car accident when he was 20 years old. That was a few days before Christmas 1985. He was walking, the driver of the car that hit him was very intoxicated. I was 19. I had a younger sister and 2 younger brothers, the same family make up as the children I would have one day. I watched my parents suffer when they lost their oldest child. It was a loss for me and my siblings for sure, but to see my parents experience losing a child was eye opening. What they experienced seemed very different and a thousand times more painful than what I did. I cried a lot and got mad at God for doing this to us. Why did he need my brother more than we did? But I was on a mission at that time to get through nursing school so I had to focus on that. I don’t think my parents had that luxury. They had to focus every day on the loss of “their baby” regardless of their jobs and responsibilities.
My next tragedy was my divorce. It was difficult of course. Being a single mother of five children is not what I imagined happening but I chose it and for me it had to be that way. I felt that although this was another tragedy in my life, it was not as devastating as losing my brother 20 years earlier. I did feel I had met my quota of difficult events though, and was pretty sure no more would come to me. In January 2009, my dad called me at work. I think it was a Friday. That was unusual. He never called me at work, and really, my mom always called and sometimes I would speak with my dad, sometimes not. I was finishing up my nurse work at the cardiovascular office I was working at in Grand Rapids. What he said did not make sense. My mom is in the hospital. She had a stroke. I asked him to repeat that. A STROKE? WHAT? Are you sure? He was sure. My mom had a large hemorrhagic stroke earlier that day at her own workplace. She was to retire in 2 weeks. My mom had been so lively and talkative and unbelievably personable her whole life. Now she has a body that I might say works a little more than half. Her right side is basically paralyzed. She is wheelchair bound. Her communication is impaired. We know she understands what we are saying but communicating what she wants to say is difficult. But she is still with us and smiles and laughs like she used to. I thought this was unfair, that my dad had to lose my mom as she had been, as well as losing his son 24 years earlier. And what about me? In a way I lost my mother, the mother that had always been there to cook and clean for family events; who flew out to whichever state I was living in to help each time I gave birth to another child, and offered unending support and encouragement to me when my life was tough. So, I was sure then that this would be the last tragedy I would have to endure.
On Friday morning, October 2, 2015, I was on my way from my home in Lowell to the hospital to see my dad before a planned surgery. There was a backup, looked like an accident ahead on M-21 heading west to Grand Rapids. Of course I was running late. I decided to take an alternate route around it. Odd. I had not heard on the radio about any accidents in Lowell that morning.
My dad was off to the operating room. My sister Nancy and I decided to go visit Mom in the facility that would be her temporary home while our dad recovered from surgery. The hospital waiting room staff called my sister’s cell phone almost as soon as we were in my car outside. We need to go back to the waiting room to “check out” is what they said. Odd, but whatever, so Nancy went back in to take care of this. Nancy called me from the waiting room “They need you, Pam.” This was crazy. I re-parked my car and went up. They immediately led me to a small private lounge. In walked a police officer and a police chaplain. I was confused. Why isn’t the surgeon telling me something happened to my dad during his surgery? I knew this was not about my father.
“Are you Pamela Topolinski?” the officer asked.
“Is your son Joseph Kargl?”
“He is.” I answered. I remember feeling faint. Joe’s car was not in the garage that morning. THAT ACCIDENT I detoured around. . .
“Joseph was in an accident early this morning. He didn’t make it home. Joe didn’t make it. He died.”
I can only remember my disbelief and instant denial. “No. Not Joe. Are you sure?” They handed me his wallet and cell phone. I then cried. NO NO NO I said over and over. Where is my sister? Bring her in here.
That was my last tragedy. And now I know how my parents felt when they lost their son, my brother. It was not one thousand times what I felt as his sister, but one zillion times that. I don’t want to diminish what my own children felt losing their brother, but being in the sister and the parent position in these two tragedies confirmed what I always knew my own parents felt when my brother died. You really do lose a part of your soul when your child dies. Your memories of that baby, in your womb, in your arms, in your home for nineteen years is now just gone. No warning. No good byes. I will never see his crooked little smirk again. I will never hear his voice again. Just gone. All his things were still in his room. I could smell his scent on his clothes for weeks. My Joe. My Joe. Why? I thought I met my quota of tragedies.
Exactly 11 months after Joe died his good friend Micah died. I went to Micah’s funeral and broke down more than I had at Joe’s funeral. Watching this happen again was too much. I couldn’t stop crying. I left the worship space. A woman I had known from Little League a few years before came to comfort me and told me about Gilda’s Club and their grief support program. I went to Gilda’s in Lowell the following week and have been going regularly ever since. I needed to take time to grieve. I realize I grieve for the loss of my brother, the loss of the mother I used to have, and for the loss of part of me, my son, my Joe. The grief didn’t end after the funeral was over. It didn’t end after we buried him. It didn’t end after I cleaned out his room and gave his clothes to his brothers and his friends. It didn’t end when I went back to work and “re-joined” society. Grieving is a process, a “passenger” I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I need to be with people who suffered losses like me, who “give me permission” each week to admit how hurt and lost I still am without that part of my soul. Thank you to my new friends, thank you to Julie and the other counselors that guide us through it. Thank you for having Gilda’s club for all of us who need it. Come join us if you need “permission” to grieve.
My journey through grief begins on October 2nd, 2015. For the majority of that day I was oblivious to what had happened to my brother that morning, which, in hindsight, I am thankful for because I was still somewhat able to play in the marching band at the football game that night, though my mind was very distracted. I was heading down the hallway at school around 5:30 pm to get ready with the band, when I saw my mom standing nearby, speaking with the school’s radio director (who we are good friends with), and I asked why she was here. She said she needed to talk to me. My initial thought was Uh oh, something happened to Grandpa during surgery. But when she pulled me aside into an empty classroom, I quickly found out that was not the case. Her first words were simple: “Joe died.” And then she told me how it happened. My mind was racing. Hold on. What? How do you even process something like that? It was baffling. To go from a state of mind where everything was so run-of-the-mill in our family to this happening was literally unbelievable. I couldn’t cry at that moment because I was in shock. And I would remain in shock for a while, because I was just trying to believe what even happened. My mom asked if I still wanted to march for the game. I said yes, but like I said, it was difficult to concentrate. I needed to put off these feelings for just a couple hours, and then I could go be sad. After the game, my uncle picked me up from the band room. I instantly hugged him, grabbed my things and went to his car and we headed home. As we drove up to my house, I saw cars lined up along the road. All of our local relatives were at our house with our family. I walked in, hugged my mom, and that’s when I started crying. Everything was surreal. It all seemed very dreamlike and blurry as I walked down to my room. I wasn’t even sure what to do. I just sat for a while until my mom came in and talked to me. I could tell she didn’t really know what to do either, and that’s pretty unsettling. My mom is hands-down the strongest person I have ever met. Unfortunately, I hadn’t fully realized that until I lost my brother. In my childhood she told me about losing her brother when she was younger, and I never really thought much of it. There was an uncle that I never got to meet. For some reason it wasn’t a very big deal to me; I had a grandpa that I never got to meet either. Wasn’t anything new, I guess. It disheartens me that my own brother had to DIE in order for me to realize not only how much pain my mom had endured throughout her life, but how important family is and how valued their lives are. And if there’s one thing that grief has significantly changed about me, it’s how sensitive I am as a person. Every time I hear about someone dying, my heart mourns for their family and loved ones because I know, to some extent, what they are going through.
Only 1 month after my brother’s death, my counselor at school told me about the Gilda’s Club grief support group. I was very hesitant at first; expressing feelings to others is not something that runs in the family. I was very unsure about what to expect, but when I went there, it was extremely eye-opening. I found out that these kids are experiencing the same feelings as me! And I was able to talk to them and share my thoughts, and they understood exactly what was happening. Moreover, one of the greatest parts about grief group is that I am able to help others with their grief, too, by sharing my insights and observations on their issues, and hopefully inspiring them or motivating them a little bit through their own grief journeys. We all help each other out, and we all have the same goal: to figure out just what the heck is going on in our heads as we experience these emotions. I am very thankful that Gilda’s Club offers this group at school, otherwise I would struggle a lot more with my thoughts, and I wouldn’t express my feelings nearly as much. It has enlightened me so greatly on other people’s feelings, and has immensely impacted my ability to get in touch with my own feelings, too.