This month’s interview is with Thy Cameron, a mother who lost her only child Shirley to cancer. This painful experience she shares with others to help them. Even in her sharing, she feels pain in the margin of loss. When other grandmothers pull out their’ brag books’ to show off their grandchildren, she keenly feels the loss of a future with no grandchildren or daughter to care for her in her advancing years.
Hello and welcome Thy. Thank you for agreeing to tell my readers a bit about your loss of an only child. I first met you when Brian was vicar at St Paul’s in Pretoria. At that time, Shirley was just a little girl of about four or five when my youngest son was born. Our paths have crossed over the years, and I was so sad when you broke the news of Shirley’s illness. I have followed your grief journey as you shared your feelings through your social media posts and the writing of your book “Mom, please help me Die.”
THY: I echo your awareness of the world’s pain – I saw a picture of a spinning globe with a sheer scarf draping and twirling around it. I understood God to say, “This is my world weeping .” I am so grateful to you for following Shirley’s story, both in the media and in the book I’ve written. I remember all three of your children and especially Robert as he was a very mobile toddler in those days.
What made you choose that title? Sharing this intimate story of loss and deep pain must have been hard for you. Can you tell us a bit about that?
THY; I called it “Mum, please help me die” because of a particular incident in her story. Shirley’s lung cancer was advancing menacingly, and we were all aware of what seemed to be inevitable. About six weeks before she died, Shirley called me over one morning. I had come to England from South Africa to take care of her and was sickened daily by the deterioration I saw. “Mum,” she said, “you do know that I am dying?’ I choked and spluttered – then stammered, “Yes, I do know.”
“Mum, please help me die.” Brutally honest as the words were, they drew from me a very honest response: “Of course, I’ll help you – I’ll do absolutely everything I can for you.”
Looking back now, I know that that was precisely the task the Lord had lined up for me. The whole book was about helping Shirley die. Perhaps I should have softened the title, but it was precisely that. By the grace of God, I had the privilege of helping her in every way I could.
Losing an only child must have been devastating to you as a family. One expects to have children and grandchildren around in one’s old age, and those dreams must have been shattered when Shirley died.
THY: Losing an only child is, as you suggest, a shattering experience. So many people said losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to you, but in those early years, my realization of what had happened wasn’t that great. I was still too stunned. Now, as the pain has abated a little and we watch others with their children and grandchildren, I think I’m beginning to understand what they are saying. For the hard times, God gave me the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you” repeatedly, but only now has what has happened bitten devastatingly deep. We’ve just had another Christmas totally on our own. I know God is the answer here too, but I’m just asking the questions with more feeling now. There’s undoubtedly fresh work to be done at His feet and in His presence and the need to harvest more grace.
Brian is a vicar who is used to giving solace and comfort to grieving parents of other people’s loss. How did you both cope with your own loss? What was your Church’s response to your grief?
THY: It is true that in the ministry, Brian and I have drawn close to others suffering great loss, but when it is your own, it becomes a different thing. There’s a difference between being used as God’s instrument to soothe and comfort others and yourself being shattered in pain. And, as very different people, God always helped us in the best way for each of us. Brian found it very therapeutic, getting back to work, and I sat, journaled, wept, ached, and waited until I was no longer paralyzed, which initial stage took at least four months. In all of this, we both learned to know God in a way we had never known Him before. One of the sad things we discovered was that people, though they do want to help, don’t know what to do or what to say. So very often, they keep away. And I fully understand that. We were blessed by a course for grieving and some excellent books, which was great. But because we’ve “been there, done that, and got the T-shirt,” we feel much better equipped to draw alongside others in similar pin. The new friends I have in the same boat are very special to me.
Writing Shirley’s story was probably cathartic, as well as your way of using her life story to impact the lives of others. It must have been an arduous process at times to put down on paper what was in your heart.
THY: It was indeed a challenging journey and only now, after nearly eight years, is the wound no longer sweating pain but dry enough to leave me only with the longing. Sometimes I crave just a word from her that I haven’t heard before, a fresh and new communication, a phone call, but there is only silence.
Writing the story took four years when I lived the story many, many times all over again. But I was astonished to discover just how much detail was etched on my heart. That is why the narrative is very vivid to me in places. Someone suggested that writing a book was actually therapeutic for me, and I’m still not sure that it was – the jury’s still out on that one! Now I realize that Shirley’s story was one God wanted told. I realize He commissioned her to live it but me to retell it, in meetings, radio, or whatever. It comforts me that He planned to use it. During those times, the writing flowed. I knew it was not me, but that grace was carrying me.
You traveled to tell the story to make the book widely known. I can’t imagine how emotionally draining that must have been. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?
THY: The book was published in the UK by Onwards and Upwards from Exeter. But we were asked to undertake its promotion ourselves. So we launched it in Shirley’s own Church – Greyfriars, Reading – where she was well known and then traveled in the UK as an opportunity offered. Before we left South Africa, I managed to set up several appointments. In South Africa, the whole process remains totally up to me. Several times now, after a long break, I’ve had to pick up the story again and again for a fresh set of meetings. I’ve found myself increasingly reluctant to open it all up again, and it has been increasingly painful.
What do you hope your readers will gain from reading Shirley’s story?
There are all sorts of ways in which readers may receive a blessing – cancer sufferers, their families, lonely, divorced girls, mentally unstable and depressed people, and on and on and on. In Hull, the father of a problematic teenager came to chat; in Reading, it was a very lonely young girl longing for marriage; in South Africa, a pastor read the book twice to help him with his own personal baggage. When I send a book out, I pray for the reader that God will use it to bless and encourage them. The verse I believe I have as the essence of the book’s message is “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4)
Have you come to the point of peace yet? How do you handle the loneliness and the ‘missing’ of your daughter?
I lost my peace not once throughout Shirley’s eleven months of suffering. What a mighty gift from God! If I felt I might be losing it, I waited alone in my bedroom for God to smooth my soul again. I knew I dared not risk losing this place in the heart of God. Many who came to the house commented on the peace they found there, mainly in Shirley but in me. In fact, at no stage have I lost my peace and shalom – praise God. Nor have I been angry. Just sad, incredibly sad. I dreamt that the Lord welcomed me in with sorrowers like Himself, the Man of Sorrows, saying, “This is where you now belong, here, among us.”
Where can people obtain this book if they would like a copy? I believe you also have it translated into Afrikaans and doing an audiobook.
THY: The book is now available as an eBook and audiobook with Kobo and Amazon. For the complete illustrated book and the abridged form in Afrikaans, please visit my website: www.mumpleasehelpmedie.co.za. The entire English book is also available from Onwards and Upwards Publishers, Exeter UK. It is also available, free of charge, in episodes for broadcast by radio stations. You can access Shirley giving her full, powerful testimony a week before she died on the website too.
Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing this heartfelt story. I am sure it will help others dealing with their own loss right now.
THY: Interestingly, every time we do some sharing, God seems to show me more and more from the story. At the moment, amid the ravages of Covid, I’m blessed with the understanding that even if there is loss, God can cause rejoicing. For me, one of the incredible comforts have been that Shirley’s struggles and pain are gone, her unhappiness a thing of the past, and that I have not had to help her do Covid! So, for now, this is the thrust of the message, but who knows what God might show me next.
I know this will be a continuing journey for both you and Brian, we never really ‘get over this kind of loss this side of Heaven, and I appreciate your openness to share your immense pain, yet also your hope and source of peace through the process. I will continue to pray for you and ask my readers to remember those who have lost a child. I am sure this is a timely message as there is much sorrow and loss in the world.
THY: Thank you for this opportunity to share. I really appreciate it. And thank you for your sensitive and insightful questions, which have been a privilege to answer.
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