"I’ve been my Mom’s mom since I was 11 years old," reveals Claudia Chowaniec, as we sit down to tea with Brenda Robertson. “I’ve been preparing to lose her all my life.”
“It all began”, Claudia continues, “when Mom was diagnosed first with breast cancer and later bladder cancer. When I was a young teenager we were told she was bi-polar and she spent time in-and-out of the local psychiatric hospital for many years. My school friends would tease, ‘Your Mom’s in the looney bin’, which was a bit hard to take.”
On being made fun of: One lives past that
“Having Mom call me ‘mom’ resulted in a few chaotic and confusing moments”, Claudia adds with a smile. “I remember once when I was late for a promised visit, Mom asked her new caregiver, ‘Where’s my Mom?’ The poor woman tried to explain gently that Mom’s mother was probably dead, at which point my mother starting crying hysterically. Fortunately I walked into the room just then.”
This lifetime of acting as her mother's caregiver through all her various illnesses created a powerful bond between the two women that shaped who Claudia is today. When her mother died, Claudia was inconsolable. "I experienced immense sorrow and loneliness after my mother's passing," confides Claudia. "I began journaling my way through her dying days and after her death as a way of vocalizing how I was feeling."
Claudia sought grief counseling and started a blog, www.griefshared.com, publicly sharing her experiences of loss. Through this she discovered that talking about her grief was immensely helpful and had a profound impact on how she was feeling. She also quickly realized that other people wanted to share their stories about their own losses, and they too took comfort in doing so. "It made me feel less alone," explains Claudia. "And that was significant to healing and coming to a new, more hopeful place in my life."
Claudia wondered, “Why aren’t we talking about how to deal with our loss and encouraging conversation and sharing our stories? Why do we so often grieve alone, isolating ourselves from others who want to help and support us?”
Mourners often close off from people when grieving and can't express their grief openly
Claudia noted she often found the medical community doesn't communicate effectively and compassionately with the dying and their loved ones. "It’s essential for doctors and nurses and the entire health care team to understand that what they say and do during these times has an enormous impact on how we’re able to deal with the imminent loss we’re facing.”
These personal insights into grief and the value of compassionate and open communication motivated Claudia to take her journal musings, her blog findings, and grief training experience, and write a book called "Memoir of Mourning: journey through grief and loss to renewal" (and its companion website, Memoir of Mourning.com). The book features a beautiful cover photo of 3 generations of intertwined hands: Claudia's, her mother's and her youngest daughter's.
My mother left me a powerful legacy and I get to tell her story
Claudia is frequently invited to speak about grief and loss to health care professionals, including students in palliative medicine, and has developed workshops for hospice volunteers and palliative care and bereavement support groups.
During the writing of the book, the primary goal of grief therapy evolved to helping others share their grief, find comfort and connect. "The purpose of the book is to share my own experience with grief as a means of encouraging others to do the same." She adds, "My blog showed me that people want to share their feelings and find solace in that sharing, but they need a framework to do it. This is what the book provides.”
The simple question: “how are you?" can open communication
Her book is, in part, a reaction to the health care establishment's negative approach to death and grief. They still often seem to consider it a failure on their part if someone dies. As a Psychology major at Queen’s University, Claudia worked part-time at the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital. She befriended an older woman who was a patient there. "I arrived for work one morning early and found her dead. I was very upset and started to cry," Claudia explains. "I was told to 'buck up'; that in order to succeed in this environment I needed a thicker skin. I needed to toughen up."
"Tough is not what you need to be," exclaims Claudia. "There is a place for compassion in the health care community. They too have to learn to deal with their own grief and loss, whether in their personal or professional lives. Who do these professionals go to for help when they have to deal with death?"
Dying is not a failure on the part of the health care team. It’s a part of life
While at Queen’s Claudia met her husband: the well-known and successful entrepreneur, Dr. Adam Chowaniec. She switched to English literature and on a full scholarship went to the University of Leeds in England to complete her PhD. At the same time Adam did his PhD in electric and electronic engineering at Sheffield University. Adam went on to develop the Amiga computer at Commodore and was recognized by the Computer History Museum in California as one of the fathers of the PC.
While her book is fairly recent, communicating and connecting is not new to Claudia. She ran her own consulting practice for 35 years and differentiated herself by encouraging conversations that might not normally happen in business. "I encourage people to speak about their perceptions of their organization, what needs to improve, and where they think it should go. These insights enable an open dialogue across traditional boundaries of level, professional groups, and diverse regions that leads to new directions for the corporation," Claudia explains.
Active in the Ottawa community, Claudia and Adam co-chaired the Museum of Nature’s national fundraising campaign and raised $12M. They are passionate and supportive of entrepreneurship and innovation. "Entrepreneurship is so important," Claudia exclaims. "Adam is Chair of Startup Canada and we both invest in start-up companies.”
Claudia and Adam have two daughters: Christina is founder of a Vancouver-based company (www.DamGoodTrips.com) that organizes sea kayak trips up the BC coast, and Alexandra is an artist and film maker (www.AlexChowaniec.com) in New York.
You have to be innovative and forward thinking
Claudia has kayaked in Belize with her two daughters and also in Haida Gwai. She counts kayaking as one of her favourite activities, along with canoeing and camping. The family has a Rideau Lake cottage on its own island. "Our cottage is near the Rideau Ferry Inn which I bought in 2000. It was pretty run down when I took it over”, she laughs, “but now it’s a successful restaurant called The Shipwreck.”
What was initially intended to be a memoir of her mother and a mechanism for her own grief led to a goal of helping and connecting with others. Claudia self-published her book, Memoir of Mourning, on Amazon Kindle. Impressively, the book has over 30,000 downloads and was listed in the Top 10 on Amazon's Best Seller list. And in true care-giver fashion, proceeds of the sale of the book go to May Court Hospice here in Ottawa.
*Editor note: on Friday, February 13th, during drafting of this article, Dr. Adam Chowaniec died of cancer. Our deepest sympathies go out to Claudia and her daughters, Christina and Alexandra, on their loss. The Ottawa business landscape has lost a mentor and true trailblazer. Rest in peace. Thank you to Claudia for agreeing to proceed with this article during this difficult time.
The following words are from Claudia:
What I learned from my mother’s passing guided my decisions on end-of-life care for my husband. In Memoir I describe the palliative care my mother received and how peacefully she died. “One breath, then another, and then no breath at all.” This experience of her death and the support and comfort I received from the palliative care team at my mother’s retirement residence, had a significant influence on my decision to do everything I could, within reason, to bring Adam home to die.
In my first book, I ask my mother’s doctor, “What will death be like? What should I anticipate in terms of physical signs?” Once Adam was home in the care of the community palliative team, that knowledge helped my daughters and I prepare for his passing and not be afraid when we saw those near to death changes in his skin colour and breathing patterns.
I hope that what I wrote in Memoir will also help me now on the grief journey I’m just beginning and guide me through my deep sorrow toward renewal in time.
I’m in the early stages of a second book, A Good Death, based on my experience of being with Adam at home during the last days of his life. The book focuses on the concept of being actively involved in decision making around your own or your loved one’s death: dying at home, making critical decisions about non-resuscitation, and preparing for death by having all of your documents organized.
I’m encouraging people to acknowledge that death is a part of life and not to be afraid of dying and death. I’m writing about how important it is to educate ourselves on the medical practices and emotional support that palliative care and hospice services offer us. I’m especially encouraging people, if it is at all possible, to choose for themselves or their loved one to die in the peacefulness of their own home.
I’m committed to advocating for palliative care and hospice services and for expanding capacity and access to these resources. We need to understand the benefits these services provide so that we can trust that it is possible to experience a good and peaceful death.
I think many of us have lost sight of the fact that death is a part of life and when it is inevitable, rather than fighting it to the end and demanding a multitude of heroic measures, we should learn to accept life’s natural progress towards death when it is near and seek out the opportunities our community palliative team offers for a gentle passing.
I also think if we better understand that a pain free death is possible in our current system of palliative care and hospice services a great deal of the fear and anxiety that surrounds the assisted suicide issue would be alleviated.
A good and peaceful death can go a long way to helping the healing process for the family members left behind.