First Day of School

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Aimee, the boys and I just returned from spending a glorious Labour Day weekend at the cottage.  We laughed and splashed and played from sunup to sundown.  We made wonderful memories and enjoyed each precious moment of the long weekend.  Then, this afternoon we packed up and headed home with hoards of other people clogging the highways on the pilgrimage back to the city.  Normally we would take tomorrow off to avoid the traffic but, this year, for the first time in our lives, we had to get home on Labour Day because we have a child starting school.  Almost three years ago our little girl died in our arms.  And with her last breath also came the death of so many of the dreams and hopes we had for her and our lives.  But tomorrow, our oldest boy Samson  will be the first in our family to head to Junior Kindergarten.  And Stella will not be there to show him the ropes.  She won’t be there to hold his hand and march him into the school and boss him around.  But we are lucky because he will be going to the same school as his older cousin Gracie, and will even have the same teacher that she did when she was in kindergarten.  Gracie will step in where Stella is not able to.  She has already shown him where the library is and explained to him how lunch and recess works.  Even without his big sister to boss him around, he is ready.  Sam has a Ninja Turtle backpack with a Stella Star attached to the zipper and a Spiderman lunchbox that he intently filled this evening with yogurt, pita and a cheesestring.

Sam, ready for school:



Big-girl Gracie will look after our boys for Stella:


Heather and Aimee and I threw a little “first day of school” party for the boys.  We ordered pizza and Poppa and neighbour Ken came over too.  We had an ice cream cake with candles and Xavier, Sam and Hugo sang “Happy School Days” to the tune of Happy Birthday.  Xavier is starting JK tomorrow too.

Xavier and Sam are excited to start JK!  Hugo is just excited to eat a lollipop (o;


Both boys know that it is a big deal that school starts tomorrow, but they don’t fully understand what it means for Aimee and I.  Sam hears us talk about Stella all the time and he knows that’s she is his sister, but he has no way of knowing how her death shook us to the core and yanked the foundation right from under us.  He will not understand why beneath our smiles and words of encouragement for him there are tears and heartache as well.  This moment means more to us than most people will ever understand.  We are standing on the brink of what could have been, what SHOULD have been, and what is now.  Sam is older than Stella ever lived to be.  He is going to be four in October.  Stella will have been dead three years this October and by her birthday in April, she will have been dead longer than she was alive.  Hugo is three now as well.  We are beginning to live the promises Stella’s death so cruelly took away from us.  Soccer lessons and swimming lessons and learning to ride a bike.  We have been thrust back into “the real world”.  After spending 16 months sheltered with Stella in the nest we created that was full of Timbits and family/friend visits and books and puppet shows and walks and ice cream it’s sometimes hard to re-enter the outside world.  I was commenting to Aimee last week about how “normal” everything is now.  We go grocery shopping, talk about work, bicker about how many vegetables the kids need to consume before dessert, read bedtime stories, order pizza, get stuck in traffic, have mundane conversations at work, fold laundry in front of the TV and have intense discussions about what brand of dish detergent to buy.  On the surface it looks as though we are just like all the other people walking to the park with our kids, but we still carry the scars of Stella’s short life and death.  We are forever changed by it all.  It is subtle sometimes though, manifesting itself in the way we let the boys splash in puddles and get muddy without trying to stop them.  The way Aimee and I leave dishes piled up in the sink so we can sit in bed together and read the paper before we go to sleep.  Our refusal to let lack of money stop us from having a cottage, going to Great Wolf Lodge and buying ice cream.  Our fierce loyalty to those who stood by us when Stella got sick.  My lack of frustration when I order a tea and get a coffee, or wait in line for 10 minutes because there is a cashier in training who can’t figure out the buttons.  Things other people might not notice or comment on, but that have become an important part of who we are.

The biggest change for me, of course, is the fact that I am now a Licensed Funeral Director in the Province of Ontario.  When I got the news over the phone in July that my official license had been issued, I broke down in sobs.  Aimee and I happened to be off that day and we had just finished a delicious lunch on the patio of a local restaurant.  It was eerily similar to a lunch we had shared the week before Stella was diagnosed…where we toasted each other and said aloud how life couldn’t get any better than what it was.  4 days later our world fell apart.  This time we finished our lunch and talked about how far we’ve come.  Then I got the call about my license and Aimee and I stood at the side of the road together and cried.  My Funeral Director’s license is so much more than a piece of paper for me.  When I look at it I remember two years of sacrifice for myself and my family.  I remember setting my alarm clock for 4am so I could study for my exam before the kids woke up. I remember missing Christmas with my kids to work.  I remember them crying at the screen door as I left for work, yet again, them begging me to stay home and take them to the park.  I remember the fear and frustration of my internship.  I remember how I almost quit several times because it was too hard.  I remember the doubts I had and the struggles Aimee went through trying to single parent while I worked and studied at all hours.  And I also remember the feelings of pride I had when I felt like I really made a difference in someone’s life.  Most of all, becoming a licensed funeral director is something that means I am living my life in honour of Stella.  Every single time I get up now and go to work, every time I work on a funeral or meet with a family I am doing it for Stella and with her in mind.  And when someone asks me how or why I do what I do, I look them in the eye and I tell them about my little girl.  I work at a funeral home in Scarborough now.  For the first time in my life I wake up each day and I’m happy and excited to go to work.  I am fully licensed, fully employed and, most importantly, fulfilled.

I did it! Class 1 Licensed Funeral Director in the Province of Ontario!!!


A co-worker of mine came up to the cottage for a few hours on Sunday.  It was a beautiful late summer day.  The sun shone down and the kids had an amazing time.  Sam and Hugo jumped off the dock and swam around.  They played in the sand.  They paddled around in their kayak’s.  In between jumping into the water with the kids, we sat on the beach and took it all in.  As my co-worker was getting ready to leave he and I stood on the deck of the cottage and looked down at the dock where Sam and Hugo sat next to each other, heads close together, talking about a fish they saw.  Aimee was busily getting dinner started in the kitchen and he turned to me and said simply, “You have a great life”.  Without hesitation, I responded, “You’re right.  I do”.  I felt no anger or bitterness or guilt when I said it.  Even though my little girl isn’t here, I do have a great life.  It’s not perfect.  I wash darks and whites together, bite my nails, give my kids too much candy, watch The Bachelor on TV, drink Pepsi for breakfast and wear mismatched socks.  I’m not a perfect parent, not a perfect Funeral Director, not a perfect daughter or sister or wife or neighbour.  But I wake up each morning and find JOY in the day I have been given.  Stella taught me that life doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be lived.

Living life with our boys each and everyday!





Our inspiration each and everyday…



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Team Stella Stars!

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Team Stella’s Stars is All Geared Up and Ready to Ride for YOU Stella!

We’re ready Stella.  Your Auntie Juju just bought a bike.  That’s right.  She bought a black bike and she’s clipped in – just for you.  Fred has been sitting on our mantle all year, right beside your Dora doll and the Stella doll that looks just like you.  In less than two weeks, I will take Fred off of her perch and carefully pack her in my bag along side of the chicken that you used to torment me with.  I have the velcro that we’ll need to adorn our bikes with photos of your beautiful face and ties to secure Fred and chicken to our handle bars.

We’re ready.

We’re ready to push ourselves far enough out of our comfort zones that we wonder if we’ll ever come back and we’re ready to tax our bodies beyond imagination.

We’re ready to ride for YOU.

There’s something about this ride that makes me feel so close to you – like you’re here with me.  Second only to the feeling I get when I stand in the door way of your room, which is now your little brother Hugo’s room.  The first time I did this ride it had only been 10 months since you died in my arms.  It was the first time in two years that I felt strong – physically and emotionally.  I was so proud to wear your face on my back.  Proud, comforted and sickened all at the same time.  Never, in my worst nightmares, did I ever imagine that it would be me who was wearing a shirt with my dead daughters face on it.  That was always someone else – the parent in that tragic story I read about on the front page of the paper – and now that person was me.

My Stella’s Stars jersey’s are folded, clean and ready.  Your Auntie Juju and I can’t wait to throw them on and join hundreds of other riders in pedalling our hearts out to do something that’s truly extraordinary – send kids to camp.  The funds raised from this incredible ride go towards making kids lives better.  Kids just like you, Stella, will get the chance to experience the magic of camp.  They’ll get the chance to realize that they’re not alone.  They’ll have the chance to make friends and to have fun.  You would have loved camp – I just know it.  From the day you were born, I had it all planned out.  You would go to Camp Tanamakoon when you were 7.  That day never came and there is a special place in my heart for the loss of what could have been.  I never had that chance to send you to camp but this bike ride gives me the chance to help send kids just like you to camp.

So this week, I will clean my bike, pack my gear and wait patiently for August 14th to arrive.

I know you’ll be sitting over your shoulders cackling your head off all the way as we huff, puff, spit and sputter our way up the endless hills just hoping that one of us will fall – something that I know you would find more humour in than anything on earth.  When my legs ache and my throat burns and I don’t think I can make it up one more hill – I will think of you.  I will remember the look in your eyes as you used your whole body to try and muster up the strength to stick your tongue out to communicate the word “yes”.  I will remember the day that you taught yourself to hold a paint brush between your teeth when cancer stole your ability to use your hands.  I will remember the sound of your laugh and I will remember what it felt like to hold you in my arms.

On August 14, 2015- I will ride for you big girl.

Please help give kids like my Stella the chance to go to camp by sponsoring our ride!

To donate click on the following link:







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The Worst Day of My Life (by: Aimee Bruner)

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I should have been dropping you off at school today Stella.  Just like all the other parents are doing as they wrestle through the chaos of their morning routines, sipping coffee while trying to get to work on time.  This warm Wednesday in June should have been like any other – but it’s not.  This is the day, three years ago, they told us you were going to die.  June 24th, 2011 – the worst day of my life.  This day is one that your mama and I, along with those who love us, have tried to erase from history.  It’s one that I’ve buried as far down into the depths of my being as it will go but it always manages to creep back up and make its way through the cracks in my heart.  If you scratch just beneath the surface – it’s there.  The trauma of that day is etched into me with no detail left behind.  I remember what I wore that day.  I remember what you wore.  The green shirt with a bicycle on it, the brown hat I had just bought you from Roots and of course – your new “doctor’s shoes”.   Those white and pink shoes mama bought you were what we used to bribe you into going to SickKids that morning.  I remember the smell of the atrium, the echo of the Starbucks line and the green cages above the railings on each floor.  I remember your aunties arriving one by one as they (unbeknown to us) became increasingly worried about what could be wrong with their curly haired, smart mouthed, exquisite, imp of a niece.

I remember the subtle glance that the intern neurologist gave to the 3rd specialist that examined you when he caught sight of your big toe sticking up.  Looking back now, I know they knew something horrific was lurking in your head.  I remember wandering through the gift shop looking for the best thing to buy you.  I settled on a little Dora doll and you loved it.  I remember glancing down at a book in that store – “C is for Cancer” it was called.  When I saw it, I felt sad inside for the parents whose kids had cancer.  I remember the toy doctor’s kit your aunties bought you from that store, equipped with everything a doctor would need, including the little, round, blue glasses that you would put on and never take off for the 5 days that followed.

I remember all of it and it makes me sick.

I remember hearing the words “mass”, “oncology” and “brainstem”.  I remember the sad, weighted look on the doctor’s face when I asked him whether there was a chance that the tumour was benign and I remember how quickly and confidently he said “no”.  I remember watching your mama fall to the floor as the medical team worked to revive her from her terrified, faint and traumatized state.  I remember retreating to the bathroom near the nursing station over and over.  Staring at myself in the mirror, pregnant belly and all, asking myself out loud “what are we going to do?  why is this happening?”  while pounding my fists against the wall.

I remember how much fun you were having in the hospital.  Running from floor to floor, wearing a pink tutu, eating 3 hamburgers a day, holding court while surrounded by your family, friends and favourite people in the world.  I remember how hard I laughed when you started to cry and tantrum when it was time to leave the hospital.  “I don’t want to go home!”  “I want to stay in this hospital!”  It was the first time I had laughed in days.

When I look back on the horror of that day, four years later, I am amazed that we lived to tell about it.  Human survival is an amazing thing.  That, the army of people that joined forces to lift us up and hold us where we needed to be to make it through each day, and of course – you.

Last week, as I sat in the 3rd row at your mama’s graduation, I was overcome with emotion.  There I sat, for over an hour as I waited for the ceremony to start, in a fountain of tears.  Flashes of June 24th, ran through my mind and I my thoughts were filled with the weight and enormity of what your mama had to overcome to be there.  Standing in a graduation gown, holding her diploma – a funeral director, because of you.  You would be so proud of how she has chosen to live the rest of her life honouring you and what you’ve taught all of us.

Stella – because of you, we are still here.  In so many extraordinary ways, you’re still here too, tethered tightly to us.

We love you big girl – on this day and every day.




Stella the day after she was released from hospital



Sam & Hugo, Stella’s greatest legacy:


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April 18, 2015

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Stella would have been six years old today, April 18th 2015.

There are some “days” in this journey of grief that are harder than others.  Her birthday is a doozy.  Because it is a “date”.  Something we can use to measure how long it’s been since she lived and died.  It’s a time that we remember the excitement of awaiting our first born child.  The moment I got to call Aimee at work and tell her I was in labour.  The moment that Stella was born with a group of 10 enthusiastic adults in the room all there to witness the incredible moment that Aimee shouted, “It’s a girl!” and the room erupted with cheers and tears of JOY.  Stella Joy.

It’s also a day to reflect on how different life turned out from what we expected that first day of her life.  We pictured the first day of kindergarten, soccer matches, high school graduation, laughter and a lifetime of getting to know our little red-headed miracle.

But life had something else in store for us.

Sometimes when I think about what we were robbed of, I get so angry.  Incredibly angry.  Because the world not only took our daughter away, it took away our blissful ignorance of the terrible things that can happen.  It took away our dreams of the future.  It took away our plans and hopes.  It robbed us of beautiful friendships that didn’t survive after our daughter died.  It robbed us of the life we planned for ourselves.  It’s very easy to get sucked in to a vortex of anger and bitterness.  It’s very easy to fee as though life is unfair and you have been so deeply wronged that you have the right to be angry all the time.

The anger comes easily to me.  And when I feel it bubbling up, I work hard to remember all the gifts and beauty that Stella’s life and death gave me.

I have to consciously remind myself of the new friendships that have grown from her cancer and death.  I have to remind myself that Aimee and I have become better parents, better daughters, better people because of the lessons she taught us.  I have to look at Sam and Hugo and allow their laughter and love of life to wash over me and cleanse the anger from my soul.  I have to look in the mirror and think about how brave Aimee and I are.  How proud I am of what we have accomplished and the people we have become.  I have to say out loud, “Stella would be proud of you”.

Some days I can cope better than others.  I find myself trying to push memories aside as a coping mechanism.  I don’t flip through photo albums of Stella.  I don’t keep her little shoes where I can see them, but bury them deep inside my closet.  I never read the old entries from the blog.  I try to live in the present all the time.  To enjoy where I am and what I’m doing and who I’m with.  I try not to think of the “what if’s” and get envious of Stella’s thriving friends who are doing all the things that she should have had the chance to do. I try not to stare at little girls in the mall and feel jealous.

Lately though, I’ve been finding that even when I try to push things aside, the memories find me.  If I go up to the attic to put away the boys winter clothes, I see all the bins that hold Stella’s things.  Her clothing, her favourite dolls, art and then the guest books from her funeral.  Yesterday I needed to thin out the children’s books that drip off of our shelves and I kept finding books I remembered reading to Stella.  I couldn’t bring myself to give them away, so I just shoved them to the back of the shelf. We still keep Stella’s baby bottles on the top shelf of our kitchen cupboards.  We need the space they occupy for other things, but neither Aimee nor I can bring ourselves to throw them out.  And even almost three years after Stella has died, Aimee and I sleep with a space between us.  The space that was occupied by Stella throughout her illness.  The exact space that she took her last breath.  We never talk about it, but neither of us touches that gap between us.  Her “Pink Kitty” stuffed animal sits there day and night.  Almost like a placeholder, waiting for her to come back and snuggle in.  A hole in the bed, mirroring the holes in our hearts.  A physical space that acts as a constant reminder of the little girl we loved and lost.

Stella fast asleep on Pink Kitty, at age 1:

Stella kitty 1 year

In some ways, Aimee and I live in a world now where Stella isn’t on the hearts and minds of many of the people we see.  Aimee’s work has seen many staffing changes with old staff leaving and new staff coming in.  Staff that know nothing of Stella or her journey.  I’ve begun a new career and there is no one at my place of work that met Stella or read the blog, or has any idea about the long days and nights we spent caring for her.  Old friends have drifted off, new friends have come in.  Of course you tell people about her, but it isn’t the same as those people who were with us from the beginning.  Those that cared and watched and waited and grieved right along with us.  It’s hard to go into work on “those” days (for example, I’ll be working on Stella’s birthday), and act as if everything is normal when you’re heart feels like it’s been ripped right out of your chest.  I don’t have the right words to explain to people who weren’t here what it is like to wake up on your dead child’s birthday and not have her there to hug and sing Happy Birthday to, and tell funny stories about the day she was born.

For Stella’s birthday this year, I will be running a funeral.  A funeral for a baby that didn’t get a chance to live past its parents imagination and hearts.  I will push aside my own grief and stand with them as they mourn the future that they were robbed of because of “bad luck” or “circumstances”.  I won’t tell them anything about Stella.  They will have no idea that my heart is also broken.  They won’t know that when I look into their eyes and tell them, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” that I’m not just saying the words, I’m actually sorry because I can feel the same sharp pangs in my chest that they can.  People at work will wish me a Happy Birthday, and I will smile and say thank-you.  They won’t think to wish Stella a happy birthday too, because even though they may know we shared the same birthday, it won’t occur to them to say anything.  After I run the funeral and help another family bury their baby, I will head to Chuck E Cheese with my family.  In a place of chaos, noise and screaming children we will both celebrate and mourn the little girl who couldn’t be at her own birthday party.  There will be a balloon on the table with her name and age.  There will be family.  There will be cold pizza and warm pop.  There will be cake.  But Stella will be missing.

Everyday Stella is missing.

I worked a funeral two weeks ago for another young girl who cancer stole away from the world.  Her mother ended the Eulogy by recalling a conversation between a child and it’s mother:

“Mama…why did she have to die?  Why her?  She was the most beautiful, the most perfect, the most incredible person”.

“Yes, she was.  Le me ask you… when you choose a flower from the garden, which one do you choose?  Isn’t it always the most beautiful, the most perfect, the most incredible?”

She sure was.

Happy Birthday baby girl.

Stella JOY (age 2):

Stella Cell Phone age 1.5

The boys eat ice cream “just because” in honour of their sister:



Gracie, Sam and Hugo hunt for Easter eggs:


Happy Birthday Stella!


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Beside Me (by: Aimee Bruner)

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From the moment you could walk I spent most of my waking hours chasing you around.  Never for one minute did you sit in the same place for longer than a few seconds – it just wasn’t your thing.  I remember trying to hang on for dear life when you used to hug me, wishing the hug would last just a moment longer and just when I thought it might, you’d twist and wiggle right out of it, giggling all the way.  On Saturday mornings, when it was my turn to sleep in, I remember hearing the pitter patter of your little feet tearing around our house.  You were making waffles with mama.  I always knew that my sleep in was nearing an end when it got quiet all of a sudden as you plotted with mama to wake me up.  Once the bedroom door swung open – it was all over.  As you climbed up onto the bed, cackling with every move, it was hard for me to pretend to be asleep without smiling.  I remember the smell of maple syrup on your face like it was yesterday as you planted a sticky kiss on my cheek.  Again, no matter how hard I’d try to hug you or get you to sit on that bed with me, you always managed to escape.

There’s a photo of you and I posted on the bulletin board in my office.  We’re walking together in Mexico.  Just you and I, side by side.  You’re not holding my hand of course but when I look at it, I can feel you walking beside me.  Mama was walking behind us when she took that photo, so the image is of us walking away in the distance.  Sometimes when I look at that photo, I imagine that we’re there, on that trip, in that moment, frozen in time.  That photo is one of my most prized possessions.

I remember when you used to get a cold or fever, secretly loving the fact that you would want to cuddle into my lap.  It really was the only time in your life, that you would stay.  DIPG changed all of that.  As the tumour invaded your brainstem and stole your ability to walk, you finally wanted to be held.  You needed to be held and I needed to hold you.  There you were on the couch.  On my lap.  In my arms. Beside me.  For a year and a half, I got to hold you.  Your mama got to hold you. That is a gift that DIPG slammed on our doorstep as it tried to extinguish you.  A gift we would take even though it brought us both moments of joy that were often overshadowed by excruciating pain that debilitated our souls.  We held you in our arms as we were forced to do things that parents should never have to do to and for their child.  We held you in our arms when our bodies were broken and our hearts couldn’t see past tomorrow.  We held you.  I remember the feeling of holding you for hours on end.  My left arm would fall asleep and my shoulder (that will never be the same) would ache.  When I was sure that you were finally asleep, I would slip out from underneath you and sneak away for a long awaited washroom break and a glass of water.  I would always find myself back on that couch though, with you right beside me.

We worked so hard to sleep train you as a baby and as a toddler over and over again.  All that to one day buy a king sized bed just so that you could spend the rest of your time on earth sleeping right beside us.  The big girl bed.  That’s what we called it.  One of my biggest fears back then was that you would take your last breath in the night without us knowing and that we would wake up to find you gone.  I spent most of the the night clutching your tiny bicep while keeping one finger on your chest so that I could feel your heartbeat and your chest rise and fall beside me.  Now I sleep with my outstretched arm across your empty spot in the middle.

You see Stella, I never imagined that there would come a time when you weren’t right beside me.  Now, memories of you lie neatly packed into a box beside my bed.  Shortly after you died, I found myself very possessive over certain things that were yours.  I started to collect them and put them in the box so that I always knew where they were – right beside me.  The box is bursting at the seams now as your brightly coloured hair bands push open the lid.  Your mini book about shapes is in there too along with small pieces of your t-shirts, the green wrist band you loved to wear, the chicken that you used to torture me with that cock-a-doodle-doos and pieces of your perfect curls – each one carefully tied up with a white ribbon.  You were unconscious when your mama and I washed your hair for the last time.  We brought a tub of warm water onto the bed and carefully washed your beautiful curls as you lay on our arms.  It was torture but we had to do it.  We knew that this would be the last time we washed our baby girl’s hair and we knew that we needed to keep some of your curls here with us.  So we lay there that day and watched your hair dry for hours.  We found each curl that we couldn’t be without and carefully cut it.  I was determined to make sure that no one could tell that your hair had been cut because I wanted you to look as you always did.

The fact that my first born has been reduced to a box of curls beside my bed devastates me in an unimaginable way that no one, who hasn’t experienced it themselves, can understand but I am so glad to have those curls.  I open that box every night before I go to sleep and every time I peek at your shiny red curls, I smile as I remember just how perfectly orange they were and how they managed to catch the light in just the right places.  Although my weighted heart aches as I feel your absence with my every being, when I close the lid and roll over to turn out the light, I close my eyes knowing that the pieces of you are right beside me.  Where they belong.

Sam and Hugo wearing their new matching “Gwinches” shirts:



Winter is finally coming to an end…Sam and I celebrated by heading to the park!


Hugo’s new haircut.  Ready to join the military!


Mama and Sam:


I remember every single pore of Stella’s beautiful face:


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