Alessandra, Always With Me

By Judith van Berkom – 

We have all experienced loss – loss is part of living; death an experience we all eventually meet. But who of us could ever conceive of losing a child? It’s not supposed to happen – a child dying before their parent. How do we heal from the death of a child and how do we speak of it?

This is from Donna Sharkey’s chapter in a new anthology, Always With Me: Parents Talk About the Death of a Child:

“That day, the last time I saw you – no, not the last time I saw you, the last time I saw you alive, vibrant, smiling – you waved goodbye to me as you rolled down the wheelchair ramp in front of the house. At the bottom of the ramp, you hugged me, gave me a big kiss on my cheek and said, “See you soon. I’ll come for dinner on Saturday.” As you passed me, you turned and blew me a kiss with your hand. “Bye” you sang, as you rode off. The sun was setting behind you, making you glow almost gold in the sumptuous autumn light. You were happy, immensely loving life that day in a way I can only aim towards.”

Donna grew up in the west end of Montreal, spending her summers in a cottage on land on the Lake of Two Mountains, given to her grandfather for his service as a soldier during WWI. She did a BA in Sociology, a Masters in English Literature, a second Masters in Social Work at Carleton and a PhD in International Education – she loved learning. She’s a published author and a recently retired professor of the State University of New York.

She adopted a child – which became two children – from Brazil. Alessandra was eight when she came to Canada and her sister, Renata, who was four years younger, arrived a year and a half later. Alessandra had lived in an orphanage in Brazil for most of her life, before coming to Donna’s home in Westboro.

(L-R) Renata and Alessandra. Photo courtesy of Donna Sharkey

The story of Alessandra and Renata’s two brothers is rather miraculous. A friend of Donna’s had been considering adoption and when he saw the pictures of Alessandra’s two brothers, he adopted them both. So the four children grew up not far from each other here in Ottawa – not in the same household but close enough to see each other regularly and hang out together.

Four years ago, in November 2014, Alessandra died in a hospital psychiatric unit. She had suffered from mental illness for most of her life – depression led to a suicide attempt which left her wheelchair-bound with a broken spine. And no place to go after hospitalization and rehabilitation. Finding appropriate housing proved to be an enormous challenge.

Donna speaks of her experience in the hospital after she was told of her daughter’s death at 27-years-of-age, “We stay until it’s time to leave, time for the last hug, the last time to hold her hand. But I don‘t know how to never see her again, to walk out of her room, to say ‘goodbye’.”

In her book, Donna describes how she came to terms with grief, “…reading and writing were the places I went to. I read about death and grief and I started a journal of sorts…. writing words to recall her voice, the feeling of her hand in mine, her hilarious comments and unique approach to life, to this world.”

Donna joined a closed 10-week group of parents who had lost their child through Bereaved Families of Ottawa-Carleton which was a life line – every week exhausting but such a help to talk to others. She needed to talk about her daughter, just as other parents needed to talk about their children. Her group stills meets for BBQs and dinners. “We’ve all changed a lot,” says Donna. “I live far more in the present. I really love life, connecting to people. I’ve learned to empathize more. We’ve all become bigger people, seeing life more fully.”

Editor of the anthology and author of one of its chapters, Always With Me – comprised of 28 different authors describing their journey through grief and loss – Donna had originally approached national and provincial organizations that dealt with grief, suicide prevention programs, and other groups focused on child loss and grief for submissions to the anthology. Over 100 people responded, often calling and talking, some unable to write – it was too difficult.

In her chapter, Donna says that four years later, “My brain has come back to itself, as has my energy. I’m less tethered to pain. But some things stay the same, and mostly this. You, Alessandra, with your big and extroverted spirit, you’re with me in my heart every day. And will be.”

The launch of Always With Me: Parents Talk About the Death of a Child takes place on Thursday, October 4, 2018 at 7 p.m. at Vimy Brewery, 145 Loretta St. N. (off Gladstone, near Preston). There is lots of parking available.

The book is also available for purchase online via Demeter Press.


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