Editor's column: Losing a child, finding light

“Sad news” in the subject line of an email tends to give me a worried brow. And when I saw it was from Brad Kilburn, the worried brow was accompanied by a distinct sense of dread.

I know Brad (and you may, too) because he used to write a cycling column for the Richmond News. He was also part of a ‘70s high school band, Thor, which has had a number of reunions over the years that we’ve done stories on.

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The last I’d heard, Brad’s daughter Kelsey was married and living happily in England. However, I also knew Kelsey had suffered kidney disease. Six years ago, Brad and his wife hosted a fundraiser/donor search event at the Lecky UBC Boathouse. It was a huge success — a donor was found and enough funds were raised to fly the person over to England for the procedure.

The transplant worked and sometime after Kelsey and her husband Ian adopted a little girl. Just last August, the family was here visiting the grandparents.

In the fall, however, something went wrong and Kelsey was back in hospital. Then, on Dec. 15, Brad and his wife got the call no parent wants and every parent dreads — your child is about to die. They took the first flight over to England and 45 minutes after their arrival, Kelsey passed away. She was 33.

I think of myself as a fairly resilient person, but losing a child is the one blow I’m not sure I could get up from. When I’ve thought of all the wonderful things I wish for my kids’ futures, I usually end up settling for: “Please, God, just let me go first.”

The past year and a half, I’ve been touched by a few families who have lost a child.  Each time, the news has packed a punch. I try to wrap my mind around it — and then I don’t. Because, frankly, I don’t want to know that kind of pain.

What I marvel at is how many of these parents soldier on. I’m sure it’s a rollercoaster and there are times of intense bitterness and resentment, moments when condolences feel like sappy sympathy poured on by people who don’t have a clue. I think what may be most galling is that look of relief in others, who are thinking, “Thank goodness it wasn’t me.”

But instead of acting like injured dogs, snapping at anyone who tries to help, what I’ve often seen is parents taking that grief and turning it into a mission to save others from the loss they’ve experienced. They speak on suicide prevention,  write about drug awareness, or, in the case of the Kilburns, advocate for donor transplant awareness.

On Jan. 26, the Kilburns will honour their daughter with a Celebration of Life at the same place they hosted the donor search/fundraiser. The celebration will remember Kelsey, thank the many individuals and organizations who have supported her and urge folks to sign those donor cards.

“We were told by her doctor that it was because of the health of her newly-transplanted kidney that Kelsey survived as long as she did,” Brad wrote.

That determination to focus on what they had, not what they’ve lost, is also reflected in their one request regarding the celebration: don’t wear black. Their girl was a bright light and that’s how they want her remembered.

Seeing people reach for colour and light amid such darkness is a remarkable testament to hope, love and survival.

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