** The blog post contains a personal story of loss and grief. If you would like to learn about leave options and supports available without reading the post, please reach out to us firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-978-0951.
By Natasja VanderBerg, Family Care Advisor & Education and Communications Coordinator
My Dad died in May of last year.
My Dad was no stranger to sickness or death.
As a minister and chaplain, my Dad had walked alongside families as they cared for their loved ones and officiated at many, many funerals. I wouldn’t say it was his ‘favourite’ part of the job, but I think he found it the most rewarding. He once told me that beautiful moments happen within families when a family member is palliative. Not always (tension and fights happen too), but often. Love is expressed. Hands are held. Parents are cared for by their children. Sometimes apologies happen. Forgiveness might follow. People are vulnerable and real.
I did not expect to be on that road with my Dad so early in his life or my life. On February 26, 2022, at the age of 69, he went to the hospital with pain. Scans showed he had tumours on his pancreas and lesions on his liver. Two weeks later, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was confirmed.
Even though my Dad had been cycling up the escarpment faster than I bike the flat bike lanes on Bloor and doing 100 push ups a couple months earlier, his super fit, energetic body was overtaken by cancer. Treatment ended up not being a possibility. We had much less time with him than we had expected.
My Dad never did anything slowly.
I am quite a private person, so I am not quite sure why I am writing this. My grieving surfaces when I am at home, in private. Except, I feel like talking about death, caregiving and ‘being with’ is a way of honouring my Dad, the chaplain.
My Dad, having borne witness to others’ palliative journeys, knew his time was limited – I think more than he let on. He gathered his closest even closer. He spent time with my Mom, with us ‘kids,’ and with grandchildren. There were moments of beauty. Moments of strength. My Mom held him up, cared for him. We held him up, cared for him. He held us up, cared for us. He cared in his own way by encouraging my Mom to talk about after he’d be gone. She still hears his voice, I think, encouraging her. He gave us countless gifts, in his living and in his dying.
The minister who my Dad had asked to do his funeral was away when my Dad died. While the minister sent in a message, which was delivered by my Aunt, the rest of the funeral planning was entrusted to us ‘kids’ by my Dad. Another (difficult) gift. Funerals can bring people together. My Dad knew this.
Another way of honouring my Dad is by letting others know about their options to be with their family members when they are sick.
To be with my Dad and Mom on some days, I was taking vacation days and personal days and sometimes working remotely while at my parents (which was possible because I was working hybrid). I have three siblings and a Mom, who was my Dad’s primary caregiver. Even with my big, caring family, at some point, caregiving and anticipatory grieving meant that a leave would have been right. Had I known how quickly my Dad’s cancer would progress, I would have taken a leave from work. I sometimes blame myself for not doing so, but when I treat myself with more gentleness, we simply did not know how quickly it would go. By the time I explored the practicalities of taking a leave, my Dad was palliative. He used his hospital bed for two nights.
If you are employed, and a family member has a serious medical condition with significant risk of death within half a year, you can go on a Family Medical Leave. Your job is protected. While on Family Medical Leave, you can apply for Compassionate Care Employment Insurance Benefits. If you have siblings with whom you would be sharing caregiving, like I did, the EI will need to be shared among you if more than one of you take a leave.
If you are caring for a family member with a serious illness, but there is not a significant risk of death within a half year, there are other types of job-protected leaves available such as the Family Caregiver Leave (during which you are not eligible for EI) or Critical Illness Leave (during which you are eligible for EI).
I recognize that taking a leave is not always financially possible. You can request a temporary alternative work arrangement to work remotely on some days, if working remotely is operationally feasible for your position and you are able to balance work and caregiving. Then you can be closer by while you are working, if your alternative work arrangement is approved.
If you are a student, you can speak to your college registrar’s office or, for graduate students, your department about taking a break or leave of absence from your studies.
Faculty members or librarians can speak to their Chair, Dean, Principal, or library supervisor about short-term compassionate, bereavement and emergency leaves.
My advice, as someone whose parent was diagnosed with cancer, is contact the Family Care Office as soon as you can speak about the diagnosis. Speaking about the worst case scenario won’t make it happen but will make you prepared. Knowing all your options ahead of time allows you to make an informed decision when it needs to be made.
No matter how important work seemed in the before times, being with my Dad as he was dying was the most important thing. It felt like a sacred space and time.
Supports & Resources
Connect with the Family Care Office
Book a virtual appointment with Natasja VanderBerg, Family Care Advisor (for U of T community members)
Palliative Care Supports
Grief Support Sharing Circle for Students – The Grief Support Sharing Circle is an informal mutual support group, led by clinicians and campus chaplains, which provides support for students who have experienced the death of a loved one, as well as students experiencing anticipatory grief.
If you need to talk to someone now, call My SSP 1-844-451-9700. Outside of North America, call 001-416-380-6578 for mental health and counselling services in 146 languages.
Mental health support for students is also available through U of T’s Health & Wellness mental health care service.
You may find you need an academic deferral or leave to help you through your time of caregiving and grieving. Undergraduate students should communicate with their college registrar’s office. Graduate students should contact their department.
Multi-Faith Campus Chaplains offer spiritual care in times of grief and perform rites of passage including funerals and memorials.
Support for faculty and staff
Faculty and staff can access the Employee and Family Assistance Program, a free confidential information, counselling and referral service. The service is provided by LifeWorks. Immediate access to professional counsellors is available by phone at 1-855-597-2110.
- Bereaved Families of Ontario
Bereaved helping the bereaved. Provides a place to discuss experiences & learn about grief in a confidential setting.
- Toronto Bereaved Families of Ontario
Non-judgmental, respectful listening to help give you space and time to discover your own way of understanding and living with the death of a loved one, whether through illness, accident, murder or suicide.
Books available through the Family Care Office Resource Library
The FCO resource library has books on grief, as well as books on caring for loved ones and palliative care.