Story: Losing the Leader in the Family
Losing someone who is a leader in the family is a dreadful loss. This is someone who tries their hardest to make everything okay for everyone, and when they are gone, they leave behind a hole that is impossible to fill. Life will never be the same for the Coppen family after they lost the joyful, big – persona, family leader, Chris.
While death is not an easy subject to talk about, it’s an inevitable part of life, and one Waipuna Hospice is here to help with. But we can’t do it alone – we rely on the incredible generosity of people like you to make this happen. Please consider signing up to become a regular donor and help us be there for families like the Coppens, now and in the future.
We all know someone who seems larger than life, someone who goes through life with a smile and a determination to help others along the way. Someone who loves hard and holds those nearest to them close to their heart. These people are often the magnets in families, bringing everyone together and making sure everyone feels welcome and loved. Chris Coppen was one of those people, and his loss is being felt by so many, but most strongly by his family.
This year for the Coppens, family gatherings will be noticeably empty without the joyful and strong presence of Chris, the family BBQ legend. Chris was a loving husband to Robin of 46 years, a caring and proud dad to his three girls, Becky, Amy and Holly, and an irreplaceable grandad to nine grandchildren. For them, the thought of getting together as a family without him, whether it’s for birthdays, camping trips, or a simple family meal on a Sunday, brings overwhelming sadness and grief.
Becky Gardiner is the Director of Human Resources at Waipuna Hospice and has worked here for over eight years. It may seem like a typical thing for an employee to say positive things about the organisation they work for.
Becky, though, shared her initial thoughts about Waipuna Hospice services, saying “one of the things I kept hearing myself saying over and over before Dad died was that I worked for an amazing organisation, with amazing people. But it wasn’t until Dad got referred to Waipuna, that true realisation kicked in and I got to see our care in action. I was overwhelmed by how wonderful the support was. I often found myself thinking – gosh, these people are truly amazing.”
Holding back tears, Becky shared with me the beginning of their journey. “Everything began to fall apart when we found out that Dad, after having his second bone marrow biopsy, was diagnosed with aggressive systemic macrocytosis with associated hematologic neoplasm (SM-AHM). They were told that this is an exceedingly rare disease and that there were only three active cases in New Zealand at the time.
“It was very scary because we were dealing with something that specialists had very little direct experience with. In my mind, I immediately went on to thinking – what are we going to do? How are we going to tackle this? Are we going to do chemo? What is our first step?”
Becky went on to share how difficult this time was for the family. “The doctor sought access to an American-funded drug. So, after starting this medication, we were hopeful. We knew his condition was life-limiting and he was unlikely to be around for ten or fifteen years, but we thought if we can get five or six years, that would be great. I guess our expectation of how long we had with him was still very hopeful.”
Becky remembered how they were feeling at the time. “Dad was still positive and hopeful about this drug and felt his body could tolerate the nasty side effects. He never talked about it being life-limiting. We were clinging to the possibility this would be our miracle because the drug had been recorded as having had a good response rate. Unfortunately, his body did not tolerate it and he had no choice but to stop taking it.”
It is hard coming to terms with losing someone who you love dearly. Especially if that person is a fun and loving leader of the family, who cared about everyone. “Dad was one of those guys who liked to make sure everyone was okay, and everyone was taken care of.”
Becky recalled that even though he was dying he wanted to make sure everything was organised. “He took Mum and I home and told us what he wanted for his funeral. I remember saying – “we don’t need to talk about this right now. You are not dying tomorrow! Let’s save this conversation for another day.” But that was his way of saying – I will take care of it, so my girls don’t need to do it. So, he went through, and he told us exactly what he wanted.”
Robin added to our conversation “I didn’t think that he was going to die as quickly as he did. And I don’t think he did either.”
This loving and caring man continued to look after his family to his very last breath and worked to ensure his wife, daughters, and grandchildren would not have to plan and organise things for him when he had gone.
Becky reflects on the care Waipuna gave. “After getting Dad’s diagnosis, we were told that it would be a good idea to get the hospice involved and get some support around us. That is when I realised how incredible the wrap-around support Waipuna Hospice provides.
“Waipuna Hospice enabled us to have Dad at home in his final days which was amazing as that’s where he wanted to be,” explains Becky with a smile. “They provided equipment, nurses would visit, and when Dad deteriorated this became daily visits. They taught us how to shower Dad, and how to use the syringe drivers (or medication pumps) and were always available on the phone. The education was a big component of our care – they helped calm our nerves and give us the confidence to support Dad at home.”
Robin reiterates what her daughter said. “Hospice services were wonderful. They did not take over, they were just there, answering all our questions. They were sympathetic without being overbearing. I also didn’t realise what was available to us.”
“The services are not only for the dying person but for the whole family, and not just the spouse but for the children as well. I don’t think people know that hospice service is available to anyone at any time. Chris loved those wonderful nurses! The care he had was so amazing. You need someone like that in a time like this.”
After 46 years together, Robin is now facing life without her best friend. She comments that she never spent much time apart from Chris in those wonderfully happy 46 years, so the idea of not having him by her side as she goes through life is an incredibly difficult one to face.
“For me, the hardest time is going to be at night and some weekends when everyone is busy. It is such peace of mind to know that I can call hospice anytime if I need to. Memories pop up every now and again. Sometimes it is just a saying or something that Chris did. Those memories of him make me laugh.” Robin finds memories of Chris provide comfort and bring joy to her heart.
Since Alyssa was young, she always referred to her grandad as ‘Pup’ or ‘Puppy’ – that was her first recollection of her loving grandad. “The hardest thing about losing Pup is not being able to see him every day. We lived so close – I would see him after school and do stuff with him. I liked to ask him about things. He was just a happy fun guy – everything about him made me smile. He was really caring and funny and just always loved cracking jokes and pulling silly faces, making other people smile. He loved being silly.” Alyssa told us all the grandchildren will miss him very much.
They shared lots of funny face photos, jokes, funny stories, and silly pranks. The memories of Chris pulling funny faces have taken us back to those happy and precious moments they shared. These make us all laugh. Then it is followed by sadness and tears when we think about life without him and his humour.
The thoughts and memories of loved ones always bring us joy and happiness, filling our hearts, but often bring feelings of sadness and loss as well.
At his funeral, Chris was described as “a larger-than-life character, gregarious, and bigger than a pine tree – he was like a giant Totara.” Becky shared that she and her sisters always thought “he seemed indestructible. He was the best Dad anyone could have ever asked for, and his absence hurts like hell. Although I know in my head he won’t be here, I cannot get my heart around the fact that I will never see him again.”
Becky continues to explain how having Waipuna Hospice’s support helped her and her family. “What’s helped me most with hospice care was that I have been able to talk about this huge loss and am able to be open about my emotions. They just let me sit and cry. The great comfort is knowing that we can talk to someone professional if we need to.
With tears in her eyes, Becky reflects on the loss of her father. “It makes me sad not having that precious time with Dad. He will not see my kids’ achievements and knowing that we are not going to make more memories with him again is the hardest part.”
“I think Dad would like to be remembered as a proud, hardworking man. He was someone with lots of friends, family and someone who was loved immensely. And I think he would have been really happy with how Waipuna Hospice handled the whole thing.”
Death is the last passage of life and is unavoidable. Grieving does not get any easier, you simply learn how to navigate the endless ebb and flow of grief and learn to celebrate your beloved by living a good and happy life as best you can.
Please support Waipuna Hospice by donating, so we can provide end-of-life care to patients just like Chris and counselling for families just like Becky’s.
We would like to thank Becky, Robin and Alyssa for sharing their story with us.
If you would like to share your story please click here.