A Family Touched by Gilda's Club Westchester
David Jaquith sometimes wonders what it would have been like if he had known about Gilda's Club Westchester when his wife was still alive. "I like to think and hope we would have taken advantage of it… that support could have been very helpful. It was all so overwhelming."
Cancer doesn't always give a warning shot. It can strike, settle in, and forever change the lives of everyone it touches within a single moment: a doctor's visit, a symptom followed up on during a routine visit. When a sudden cancer diagnosis arrives, it's a shock; a startled whirlwind that turns every day upside down.
That's what happened to the Jaquith family when Carolyn, a seemingly healthy and vibrant mother of two girls, a woman who swam every day and taught dance to preschool children, went to the doctor one day shortly after Thanksgiving in 2007 to have a persistent cough checked.
That day Carolyn was diagnosed with lung cancer. Just a month and ten days later, Carolyn left behind husband David and daughters Julianne and Aly.
David and his daughters had gone from a happy life with a wife and mother they loved, to being immersed in the overwhelming momentum of cancer and then grief, with barely enough time to catch their breath. In a single holiday season, their lives were completely changed. Carolyn was in her early 50's; nowhere near the national average age of 70 for a lung cancer diagnosis. She and David had been married for 28 years; they thought they were healthy. No one in the Jaquith family had seen cancer coming. "We were just thrown into this maelstrom of doctors, treatments on a daily basis, medication… dealing with the possibilities. It was all so sudden and it turns you completely upside down… you become completely immersed and it's all that matters."
Where does someone go after a trauma like that? Who do they turn to for support? Where do they find a "safe" place to sift through the acute emotions in the aftermath of loss? And where is there a place without glances of pity, without the need to "explain" over and over again?
"Carolyn didn't really want anyone to know," David shares. "We waited until the girls' winter break from school to tell them and then we just kind of stayed home. We had a few quiet weeks at home together. But her death came as a surprise to a lot of people in our community. We had a lot of outpouring of support initially." Then, at some point, they didn't want to talk about it all the time. "I also didn't want the feelings of pity that I would sometimes get… I had a tendency to avoid people who I thought would react that way. I wanted people to treat me normally."
When Carolyn became sick, no one in the Jaquith family knew about Gilda's Club Westchester. David and his daughters worked on finding their own way through grief, returning to work and school, trying to get back to as much of the life they knew before. Sometimes this was like treading water, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong when actually, nothing seemed right. A year and a half passed and then a teacher reached out to Aly, suggesting she enter an essay in our "It's Always Something" Teen Essay Contest.
Aly wrote the essay before telling anyone about the contest. When she read it to her dad prior to submitting it, he was blown away at how profoundly articulate 16-year-old Aly had been in expressing the myriad feelings that had been part of their experience. "I shouldn't have been terribly surprised; she's a lot like her mom in that respect. Carolyn was very articulate and intelligent." Aly won the contest and David attended her awards ceremony. It was after that event that the family became members of Gilda's Club Westchester.
David joined the "Living with Loss" group and finally found the relief he needed. "Gilda's Club Westchester is a safe place to process. Everyone has experienced cancer in their families – you don't have to pretend. You can tell each other anything in complete trust and freedom. The people I have met in this group… some of them have become my closest friends."
For David, friendship became a significant benefit of our community. "These are people who know me for who I am now. Not for the guy I was… not just as someone whose wife died from cancer." That fresh start is an essential part of the recovery from loss. Now, David has become an Ambassador for Gilda's Club Westchester, spreading awareness of the organization and the many supportive events on our calendar.
"One of the things we're working on is awareness. We'll visit health fairs, offer gift wrapping at the mall and just let people know. Gilda's Club Westchester's services are completely free. We'll say, 'Take this flier… throw it in the drawer. If you ever have a need or know someone else who does, it's there.'"
David agrees that gaining understanding helps with coping while experiencing something as intense as cancer. "I have friends from the Living with Loss group who went to the family group or the caregivers group. I think having those resources available in the moment would be tremendous. The lectures, the education, the more you know, the more you understand."
"I myself didn't have cancer and when we were dealing with it in real time we didn't know [this kind of support] was out there." David hopes his efforts to help raise awareness of Gilda's Club Westchester and what it provides will help other families who have experienced the first shock of cancer. "Because I didn't find Gilda's Club Westchester until later, it was too late for me to participate in a lot of what they offer. I don't want families to have to wait as long as I did."
When asked if there was a story that might illustrate the overall impact Gilda's Club Westchester had on his family, David was reluctant to choose only one. And then he shared one that sort of summed it all up in a nutshell. It was on a quiet night when Aly was still in high school, and it exemplified how much they look out for each other. "She said, 'Dad… you're always better when you come home after group.'"
Help Gilda's Club Westchester be there for more individuals and families who need a place to listen, be heard, and simply be themselves. Please make your gift today.
Become a member of Gilda's Club Westchester today!