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Last lesson from a big sister who’s died? What to do without her | CBC News

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A woman in a white sweater is hugging into her sister who is lying down in a bed.
Leanne Friesen cherishes this photo of her and her sister Roxanne Howse, which was taken in 2013 just a few weeks before Howse died. (Submitted by Leanne Friesen)

We might think we know what someone else is going through, but we have no idea until we’re in their shoes, and author Leanne Friesen learned that firsthand in the most devastating way possible: losing her beloved sister to cancer. 

Friesen’s job as a pastor involved ministering to dying and grieving people on a near-daily basis, so she might quite reasonably have expected that she’d be equipped when it was her time to grieve. 

But Friesen said nothing prepared her for the shock and devastation she experienced when her sister Roxanne Howse died of melanoma in 2013 at the age of 48. 

“I was not prepared for the depth of grief and loss I felt when this person I loved so deeply died,” said Friesen. “The heaviness of grief is shocking and overwhelming.”

That’s what led Friesen to write her book, Grieving Room, to encourage other people to make room for their grief. The author, originally from Dildo, N.L., is now touring Newfoundland to promote her book. 

Beginning and end

Friesen was 13 years younger than her big sister, so she had always looked up to her as a role model, mentor and friend. 

In the early stages of Howse’s battle with cancer, Friesen said it was easy to forget or at least push to one side that her sister was facing a terminal illness. 

As the end drew near, Friesen writes in her book that she found herself coveting the time others were spending with her sister and wanting more of those moments for herself. 

She now realizes that, deep down, she was hoping for what most families don’t get: what she calls a “Hallmark goodbye.”

Friesen said she believes most people’s expectations around the end of life are unrealistic, so much so that she devotes an entire chapter of her book to “imperfect goodbyes.”

A young teenaged girl sits on the hood of a 70s model car, with a baby girl in her arms. The baby is wearing a pink top and pink sunhat.
Leanne Friesen (the baby in this photo) treasures many happy memories of Roxanne Howse. Up until Howse’s death in 2013, Friesen had never known life without her big sister. (Submitted by Leanne Friesen)

Friesen said families may feel cheated if they don’t get final moments at the bedside with their loved one while the dying person is still able to utter a few words, and when relatives and friends who will be left behind can communicate and say what they need to say. 

“In all my years of ministry and being at many deathbeds, I have never seen anyone have a death like that,” said Friesen, who is a Baptist pastor.

Friesen wants to assure people that, no matter how their loved one’s life ended, they can find their own way and time to say goodbye, whether it be at a graveside or, as in her case, on a sandy beach, months later when the grieving person can reflect on how much the person who died meant to them.

“Whatever your last moments were like with your loved one, they become your story. And you need room for that story, even if it didn’t look like something that was on TV,” said Friesen, who also has a post-graduate certificate in death and bereavement from Wilfred Laurier University.

A teenaged girl with curly hair sits on a red couch reading a book to the little girl beside her.
Roxanne was 13 when little sister Leanne was born. Now, the death of the sibling who read books to her has inspired Leanne Friesen’s own book. (Submitted by Leanne Friesen)

Open book

In Grieving Room, Friesen is candid and forthright about her family’s experiences as they supported her sick and dying sister, sharing about the heartbreaking resistance of some family members to accept that healing and recovery weren’t going to happen.

Friesen said it was important to be respectful of privacy considerations but that she also wanted to share as much as she felt her sister would feel comfortable with her sharing.

She said too often people view death as being too embarrassing or private to talk about openly, and she wanted to counter that by sharing from the depth of her own emotions.

“What’s been beautiful is how many people have written me and said ‘Thank you for sharing this,’ or ‘This story meant so much to me,'” said Friesen.

She said people tell her that reading her book made them feel normal again and validated what they were going through.

Two women smile as they look into the camera.
Sisters Leanne Friesen, left, and Roxanne Howse were born and raised in Dildo, N.L. Howse was a teacher in St. John’s for many years. She battled cancer for eight years before she died at the age of 48. (Submitted by Leanne Friesen)

Finding the right words

Friesen has a word of caution for people who want to support those who grieve without causing them extra hurt or pain.

She said people are usually well-intentioned when they offer advice or guidance to grieving people but, especially if you haven’t lost someone yourself, those words can land in a way that you didn’t expect.

“The things that we say that are trying to minimize or encourage people in any way to not feel what they’re feeling, as a rule, aren’t really as helpful as we think they are,” said Friesen.

Among the least desirable phrases, Friesen includes: “They wouldn’t want you to be sad,” or “At least they had a long life.”

But the worst thing to say, according to Friesen, is nothing at all. She said grievers often tell her what hurts most is when people just don’t bring up their loss or acknowledge it in any way, as if mentioning their loved one will make them sad.

“It’s on their mind all the time. You’re not reminding them of their loss. You’re acknowledging that you see them in their loss,” said Friesen.

Friesen recommends following the grieving person’s lead. If you don’t know what to say, she said, it’s okay to say that; tell them you’re sorry for their loss, you’re there for them, you’re sad with them.

A smiling woman with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses is wearing a white top and a necklace with circle pendant.
Leanne Friesen is in back in her home province this week to promote her book. She is doing book signings and workshops on grief in Dildo, St. John’s, Gander and Corner Brook. (Dawn Danko)

Turning the page

Friesen’s book tour of Newfoundland this week is in many ways the concluding chapter of a path her sister’s death set her on more than a decade ago, one she would never have chosen.

From the time her book was picked up by publishing company Broadleaf Books, her plan has always been to have a homecoming with Grieving Room.

“I absolutely couldn’t imagine not bringing this book home to the people that had journeyed with me for so much of my life, been part of my sister’s journey, and continue to be part of my journey,” said Friesen.

As she’s found her way through her own grief, she said it’s been a privilege and a motivation to help others who grieve.

It seems fitting that the sister who, in life, was Friesen’s role model would inspire a new purpose as she moves on without her.

Friesen will be doing workshops about grief and book signings this week in her hometown of Dildo, as well as in St. John’s, Gander, and Corner Brook.

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