• Kenzie and Nic in hospital in 2005.
  • Nic Russell and son Conor in 2020.
  • Conor, Nic and Kenzie in 2005 as both Nic and Kenzie are receiving cancer treatment.

Resilience in the face of grief

Devonport resident Nic Russell recently set herself a challenge: to present a TEDx talk on facing grief with resilience. Christine Young talked to Nic to find out a bit more about this extraordinarily resilient woman and what prompted her to take on this latest of many challenges she’s chosen (and not chosen) in an extraordinarily richly lived life.

Nic is well-known around Devonport. Swimmer, cyclist, adventure sporter, once upon a time. Flamboyantly and cheerfully riding everywhere on her bright turquoise bike – now electric – not only locally but to clients as far away as Mairangi Bay. Principal of a successful one-woman PR operation that boasts clients including New Zealand Sculpture Onshore, the bi-annual sculpture exhibition supporting Women’s Refuge; Pindrop, a health advocacy campaign for cochlear implants; a campaign for Herceptin working alongside the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition; and Kenzie’s Gift, a charity founded by Nic and dedicated to the memory of her beloved daughter Kenzie who died of cancer aged just three, not long after Nic herself had been diagnosed with, and while she was facing the rigours of treatment for, breast cancer.

Oh, and there’s more. She’s recently been diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons disease, and faced gruelling breast reconstructions to undo the damage done by post-cancer breast implantation.

All this while she has been successfully bringing up her son Conor, now 20.

How has she done it? She’s faced more grief, more illness, more challenges than most of us do in a lifetime. Yet 15 years after Kenzie died, she continues to face forward, and take on still more challenges, like daily midwinter swims, most recently self-filmed on a new Gropro camera.

Nic was born in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1973. There, in a small town and living just 200m from the beach, she developed her love of nature and outdoor adventure sport. Seeking whatever it is a small-town girl seeks from brighter lights, at the age of 19 she moved to London where she  worked as a hospital play specialist. Four years later, attracted to New Zealand as the adventure capital of the world, she arrived in New Zealand, intent on biking around the country but quickly abandoning that plan once she saw the height of the mountains here. What they called mountains in Ireland were mere hillocks in comparison; she might be adventurous, but she was not mad.

She did, however, work in play therapy at Starship and Kids First hospitals. She also met her ex-husband and with two small children, they moved to Motutapu (where he was an outdoor instructor) for two years. But Kenzie, not quite three, became ill, shortly before Nic herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, the marriage broke up and Nic moved to Devonport, her point of reference on the mainland during her stint on Motutapu.

Despite later challenges (more of which soon) she developed a career as a PR consultant, advocate and change agent, combining skills developed in her early career in health and her “natural flair” for empathy, understanding human behaviour and creative story telling.

 “I combined those passions, completing a BA in Psychology and Post Graduate Diploma in Communications Management and PR. I've been very fortunate to be able to combine my passion for creative storytelling and social change through numerous campaigns, such as the Herceptin campaign, Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns, Child Health campaigns, educational campaigns, advocacy campaigns and hearing health campaigns. In addition to the PR and marketing campaigns, I have also managed events ranging from photography exhibitions, health conferences, fundraising events and entertainment events.”

Most of her work has centred around advocacy, events and campaigns for social and health related causes. “I'm seen as a dedicated agent for social change who can turn visions into reality,” she says.  
“I'm a storyteller and lover of bringing good to life. I work with clients one-to-one, to develop effective communications that fit with their values and drive action.”

No wonder she was a recipient of a New Zealander of the Year local hero award, recognised in 2014 for her work on the Hope Emerges campaign, a powerful and positive social media campaign that aimed to “change the conversations around breast cancer and mastectomy”.

But this story is about Nic’s personal rather than professional challenges. In 2005, her life changed forever. She tells the bones of the story in her TEDx talk. “My three-year-old daughter Kenzie and I were both diagnosed with aggressive cancers,” she says. Tragically, Kenzie died at the end of that year.

“Over the past 15 years since Kenzie died, my life and health have continued to be eventful,” she says using a euphemism most people would apply to more benign occurrences than major health issues. “My body has continued to malfunction at a great rate of knots. So much so, I’m now living with Parkinson’s disease, I have a chronic degenerative heart condition which is leading me into heart failure, I have endured 10 surgeries for numerous issues, some stemming from complications from my original breast cancer…. Life has been a bit of a cruel taskmaster.”

When cancer, then grief, exploded into Nic’s life and left it shattered, she turned to what she knew could bring her comfort and help calm the storm in her heart and mind: sport and nature. She also turned to a therapist.

She had already spent nearly a year juggling her care and concern for her sick daughter with her son Conor’s needs for life to be as normal as it could be. She knew that with Conor (aged just six when Kenzie died) to remain strong for, her illness and Kenzie’s death were bigger than anything she could cope with alone, even with strong support (as she had) from family and friends. She had to ensure that Conor felt loved and secure, that he could enjoy play dates, sport and a mother who could provide whatever ‘normality’ was possible.

She turned to an “amazing psychotherapist, Maxine Burgen Paige. Max had a small foundation, which enabled her to see me at no charge. It was a lifesaver, as I certainly could not have afforded therapy. I was a single mum with very little in the way of resources or disposable income, but therapy was something I desperately needed. Max gave me the strength of resilience to enable me to rebuild my shattered life. I can safely say, I would not be here today if it was not for Max.”

From Max, she learned that everyone does grief in their own way. And that self-care is not an indulgence to feel guilty about but a necessity to ensure that even in your grief, you can continue to live your life, to give, in her case, the love and time that Conor needed,  and  to do justice to Kenzie’s memory and live the life that she believes Kenzie would have wanted her to live.

Her work with Max inspired her to set up Kenzie’s Gift, a charity that has now grown to support the mental health of children and families facing serious illness, traumatic grief or loss. It helps 50-60 families a year with up to 10-20 sessions each with a qualified specialist therapist. Kenzie’s Gift can now call on 11 therapists nationally, and if Nic receives a request from a family needing support outside the centres where Kenzie’s Gift has therapists, she works to find one.

Nic says she wanted to pay forward the kindness that Max had shown to her. She wanted to “ensure that young Kiwis and their families had mental health support to rebuild their shattered lives after a serious illness or a traumatic loss. I wanted them to be able to access resources”, as she had been able to do. Her TEDx talk highlights just three of the stories of young people her charity has helped.

Her midwinter swims at Narrow Neck from June through to September this year were to raise funds for Kenzie’s Gift; accompanied by a supportive roster of friends, she tackled the cold waters around Devonport on a daily basis, and raised $16,000.

Outwardly, Nic is bright, bubbly, always smiling. Perhaps her grief has healed as the years have passed. Not so, she says. “Time does not ease the pain of grief. Instead, the pain changes and life grows around your grief. The initial acute pain of grief morphs into a chronic pain that is always there.” It can flare up at unexpected times, or be triggered by other events. You must, she says, give yourself permission both to enjoy the pleasures of life without feeling guilty (because it might seem you have forgotten your loved one) – and to step back if the grief is overwhelming, and simply take stock for yourself.

“I remember the rawness of those early days. I can only describe it as hell on earth; the pain was excruciating. It was overwhelming and I think I was in a state of shock.”

She coped, rather than healed, by throwing herself into activities that would keep her focused: “Raising Conor, going back to university, being involved in the Herceptin campaign, while also continuing on my own breast cancer treatment.”

Keeping active, being outdoors amongst nature, walking, biking, swimming, exploring new places and experiencing new things also helped. “Being surrounded by positive, kind, genuine, compassionate and empathetic people was exceptionally beneficial too.”

But, she exhorts, everyone must do grief in their own way. “It’s different for everyone. Do it your way and don’t judge. Live your life; you only get one chance. Live your best life, to do their memory justice.”

Nic accepts that her illnesses and the loss of Kenzie have been life changing. For her and for Conor. But one thing is for sure, she says. “I would not swap this grief for never having Kenzie in my life. I loved her with all my heart and will do to the end of my days.” She lives her best life, hoping that her work and Kenzie’s Gift are not only a legacy she leaves in memory of Kenzie, but also a legacy she leaves for Conor: a memory in the future of his mother’s and his sister’s lives.

Watch Nic’s TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRJrkK2EFRs

Kenzie’s Gift  www.kenziesgift.com.