Psychiatrist Patricia Casey and her husband John gave a moving interview this morning when they spoke about losing their 24-year-old son Gavin to cancer.
The couple adopted their two sons Gavin and James, they told RTE’s Sunday with Miriam.
Gavin, who had already recovered from cancer of the nose when he was just five years old, was diagnosed with a tumour of the spine two days after his 24th birthday, on August 21, 2017.
John and Patricia told listeners how this devastating news was the beginning of two “terrible years”.
Patricia, who was in Edinburgh when she got the fateful phone call said: “I sat outside the shop and I must have looked very pale because I’ll always remember this – a young man, walking along with a bottle of water and a burger in his hand said are you alright? And I said ‘no, I’m not’, I’ve just found out that my son has cancer, and he said I’ll call a cab for you.”
“And then he said, God bless you, I’ll pray for you, and then he walked away. I’ll always remember that… It was very kind.”
Cancer of the spine has a very poor prognosis, Patricia said, but since Gavin had recovered from cancer once before, the family was very hopeful that he’d have the same outcome this time round.
“I knew from the beginning that the outlook wasn’t great, but I was hoping against hope.”
“Unfortunately he didn’t respond to the standard treatment.”
John added: “At one stage we thought he’d lose his legs – and that was tragic and horrible – but he would survive, but [the doctors] couldn’t do that, they couldn’t do it.”
Gavin himself was aware of the prognosis, they said, but the fact that he was on experimental drugs and receiving great medical care meant that he was very hopeful. His natural positive outlook on life stood to him, the couple fondly remembered, and they chose to keep him as positive as possible.
John told Miriam: “We did tell him the prognosis. He never did ask us if he was going to die. He never for one minute thought he was going to die… He always thought he’d recover and he’d go back to college and see his friends. But he knew the prognosis was bad.”
“He was on experimental drugs. He knew he was fading; he knew he was getting ill. He’d lost the use of his legs and he was in a wheelchair, and we were lifting him into and out of bed, and into and out of the car. He knew he was in a serious state but he still was very positive.”
Patricia added: “The only time he ever asked me was early on, he said ‘mum is there a possibility that this could kill me?’ I said ‘there is Gavin, that’s always the way with cancer, but you survived before and hopefully you will with this, and you’re getting the best treatment’.”
Gavin was under the care of Professor John McCaffrey in the Mater hospital and Professor John Crown in St Vincents hospital, who organised that he be included in a drug trial.
The fact that Gavin never found out that he was dying of cancer is a particular solace to Patricia, she said.
Patricia told Miriam: “All the time Gavin was given hope. And I feel very strongly that that should be the case. People were telling us ‘you should tell Gavin… you should sit down and have the conversation with him’.”
But she said: “I knew my son and John knew his son, and we decided that we couldn’t do that, and that Gavin really wouldn’t cope with that, and that it would be cruel to take all hope from him. So we didn’t do that. But we vowed that we would answer him if he asked directly ‘am I going to die from this?’… that we would answer him as sensitively as we could, but honestly. But he didn’t ask us that.”
“I remember him doing his leaving cert and I’d look out the window the week of his leaving cert, and Gavin loved climbing trees, he’d be up a tree when he should be studying for his exam the following morning, and he would say ‘ah, I’ll be alright’.”
Similarly, this facility he had to have a positive outlook meant that Gavin “remained very resilient throughout his cancer”, Patricia said.
“I think it was that capacity to put things into a little box and put them aside and forget about them until you really had to.”
John added: “There would be some times that he would be getting frail or he’d become upset and distressed but it would very quickly pass.”
Patricia added: “To any parents facing this, I think they should think carefully before being brutally honest with their children.”
Gavin’s birth parents remained very positive too throughout his illness, Patricia said. His birth father helped to carry his coffin while his birth mother walked down the aisle with Patricia behind his coffin.
John, who is a barrister, writes a blog “Broadsides – A collection of bits and pieces” and wrote a poignant piece about Gavin entitled “With his long hair and gentle ways”.
He said he finds it too difficult to visit Gavin’s grave or to listen to stories about cancer in the media.
Patricia, meanwhile, he explained: “I talk to him everyday. Usually first thing in the morning, and then in the evening at the end of the day. I update him on what I’ve done for the day. I ask him for his help in guiding me with things I’m doing, particularly difficult patients… in the sense that there are difficult management problems. I ask him to guide me about that. I ask him just little things as well.”
While John offered: “I see him all the time, I see him on the bus, sitting at his computer. I just see him. We grieve in different ways.”
“Do men and women grieve differently?”, Miriam asked Patricia.
“I think they do. I think men’s grief is more silent, like John’s. Women’s grief is much more externalised. We’re able to talk about it. We’re able to cry. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men’s grief. This idea that men should grieve in the same way, behave emotionally in the same way, that women do is nonsense I think.”
“I’ve had to deal with it myself. [people] telling me ‘oh you need help, you need to go for counselling, without asking how you’re grieving. Grief is perfectly normal. As long as you have somebody that you can confide in, now if you’re alone in the world and don’t have anybody to talk to or any shoulder to cry on… it’s different, and maybe that’s when you do need to see somebody. But it doesn’t need to be a therapist. It could be a friend, a neighbour, a son, a daughter. They’re the people you need to turn to.”
“It’s fine to cry.”
Some things, she said “can only be made better with time”.
“We’ve to let time do the healing.”