Her dying mother's greatest fear was that she would eternally miss her family. Her father's greatest fear was that his wife's imminent death would cloud the couple's 52-year love story. So despite her grief, Linda Campanella, member of Asylum Hill UCC in Hartford, Conn., vowed to make her mother's remaining days as blessed and joyful as she knew how, for everyone's sake. Campanella chronicled the ups and downs of her mother's last year of life in her memoir When All That's Left of Me is Love, and now hopes her story may help others celebrate life even in the face of death.
"The book more or less wrote itself," she said. "It was a catharsis – an outpouring of my grief, but a wonderful way of being connected with my mother."
Campanella, along with her father, served as her mother's primary caregiver during her battle with metastatic lung cancer. While thankful she could spend precious days at her mother's side, it was not a role Campanella was emotionally prepared for. With the support of her pastor, Campanella was able to maintain a brave face while filling her mother's days with light and laughter. They consulted a calendar daily, not to check off the days she survived, but to plan ahead for events in the future. Mother-daughter days, visits with friends, trips to Maine in the fall, and daily happy hour – a signature event of her mother's last year that the family still continues today – were just some of the ways Campanella and her mother spent their time together.
"We really focused on living and living every day fully and joyfully even as we were expecting her death," Campanella said. "We did many things that were very special – we actually surprised ourselves because we were experiencing so much joy."
Watching her journey as an observer, Campanella's brother suggested she write it down, an idea she quickly dismissed. But after her mother's passing, Campanella realized that she couldn't get the thoughts and memories out of her head. Emails from family, friends and caretakers inundated her inbox, all of which helped tell the story of the emotional roller coaster ride they had all just experienced. So she began to put it on paper. Some of the emails are included in the book verbatim, as Campanella could think of no better way to capture the happiness, fears or frustrations felt on days that were extraordinarily joyous or particularly difficult. The words came quickly, and in less than two months, Campanella had documented her beautiful, yet heartbreaking story of love and loss in time to give her father a copy for Christmas.
"I found that when I was lying in bed awake or driving around and letting my mind wander, chapter headings would appear in my mind and paragraphs would form in my head," she said. "Within two months of her dying, I had to succumb to these thoughts and give them an outlet."
Since being published, When All That's Left of Me is Love has won multiple awards, including a 2012 Nautilus Silver Award. Campanella does talks and book signings at churches, book stores and conventions all across New England, and has received praise and endorsements from reverends, chaplains and doctors for the book's ability to touch, inspire and heal. Campanella says her book would be a useful tool for anyone involved in caring ministry as she documented what did and didn't work for her family during and after her mother's death. For example, religion plays different roles in the lives of her family members – Campanella is a believer, while her father is an agnostic and her sister is an atheist – so they needed different types of comfort at different times during the process.
"There is a great contrast in my family with the role that faith plays," she explains. "If a Stephen Minister had gone immediately to prayer with my father or my sister, it would have been a mistake. The book reminds people to listen, and know that just being present or providing a simple touch may be needed more than lines of scripture."
But one of the most gratifying outcomes of her book is how it encourages other people to share their stories, Campanella says, adding that she hopes this sharing will keep loved ones alive long after they're gone.
"The book provides a very intimate view of the impact of terminal illness, not just on the patients who receive the diagnosis, but also on the family," she said. "Even though the book deals with death, I do believe and hope that it ultimately will be valued for the lessons it provides for living."
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