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On this day, Stella, we’ve taken our heavy hearts, flip flops, damp bathing suits and all the junk food and caffeine we could ever wish for and we’ve headed to the water slides at Great Wolf Lodge.  We are here – remembering your smile from your favourite place on earth.  We are together, surrounded by love, screaming children and the smell of chlorine.  Today, we will go to the “club club”, swim in the hot pool and rip down the water slides, thinking of you with every step we take.  Being in this place that you loved so much is so familiar and comforting to me.  When I think of the last time that we were here with you, my heart breaks at the thought of you not being able to move.  We carried you everywhere and spent almost the entire time we were here in the hot pool.  You loved it.  In fact, if I allow myself to stay present in that memory – I can almost feel the grin on your face.  You smiled the whole time.  Whenever we asked you if you wanted to go here or go there, you made sure to stick that tongue out to let us know you approved.  I would give anything to be able to hold you in that hot pool again.  Right now, your brothers and cousin Gracie have taken off to your beloved “club club” with your mama and Auntie Andgie.  I couldn’t bring myself to leave the hotel room without writing you this note.

Xavier, Auntie Heather and Poppa will be here tonight to cerebrate Sam and Xavier’s 4th birthday and even though my heart aches without you here – part of me is so happy to be in this place, remembering you.  The sight and smell of the lobby, which is to most adults – completely offensive to the senses, gives me butterflies when I enter it.  The talking bear and moose, the over indulgent gift shop, and the howling wolf always manage to ignite a slow grin on my face.  I will never forget pacing the hallways, staring at the patterned carpet at 5am just to keep you occupied, when we brought you here for the first time.  You were so little.  I want to go back to that time.  I know we can’t though, so instead, I will put on my cold, damp bathing suit and head off to the water park – that place that made you smile more than anything else could.

I can’t believe it’s been three years today since you died in our arms.  We miss you everyday.

I love you big girl.

Mommy xoxo


Stella at Great Wolf Lodge, June 2012:



Sam, Hugo and Gracie at Great Wolf Lodge:

photo 3

photo 2

We visited Stella’s tree and left her some Hallowe’en treats:

photo 1

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The Pain of Wisdom

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October and the change of summer into Fall is always hard for Aimee and I. We struggle with so many conflicting emotions. Happiness at our family and our two amazing sons, and the acute knowledge that something is missing— out little girl—and she is always missing from everything that we do. Every dinner, every Friday Family Movie night we have at home, ever holiday, every moment of everyday something is missing. It is difficult to live with the ghost of the past and all of the “should have been” or “could have been”’s that we think about. Just last night I was at the grocery store. It was all so mundane. The guy checking me out did the usual, “Hi how are you” and I said, “Great. How are you?” and he responded then I watched him bag the groceries. It struck me how surreal it was to be standing at the grocery store now, almost 3 years after Stella’s death. The same grocery store her and I walked to on a daily basis when I was on maternity leave with her. And when she got diagnosed with DIPG, we walked there all the time for Avocados and fresh air. And now there I was standing completely normally, having a meaningless conversation with someone, hiding completely what I’d been though. Suppressing the vivid memories I have of Stella at that same store. It’s such a tricky thing to remember and honour her without getting stuck in the past and without focusing so much on the heartbreak and sorrow that you miss all the gifts and joy of the present.  Some days are easier than others.  Almost 3 years after her death, it is easy to look back and think how far we’ve come.

But oh my God, I miss her.

I miss her laugh. I miss kissing the top of her forehead where the curls started. I miss watching the soft rise and fall of her chest as she slept. I miss all the dreams and hopes I had for her life. Last week I got in the mail a catalogue for a line of dolls called Maplelea. At first I was so excited because I love dolls and clothing and all the amazing accessories. But then I thought about the little girl I always imagined sharing that love with and I burst into tears. Poor Aimee didn’t quite know what to do with a blubbering 36-year old holding a doll catalogue and raging at the injustice of not having my daughter to share it with. So she just held me and let me cry. We don’t even know if Stella would have had any interest at all in dolls (truthfully my sense is no—whenever we gave her one, she would try to rip it’s head off…), but that’s part of the anger of it all. We don’t KNOW what she would have done or liked or disliked. And we will never know. All I have are 3.5 years of memories and a tear-stained doll magazine that is now at the bottom of a pile of bills. There are other little girls in my life that will look at the magazine with me. But I wanted it so badly to be MY little girl. The boys…well, I never really believed that boys are boys and girls are girls, but truthfully my guys show no interest in dolls. They like sword fights, zombies, lego and bike riding. They are constantly leaping off of furniture, running in circles and climbing anything they can find.

It’s very interesting to me the way that Aimee and I have reorganized our lives since Stella died. My new career as a funeral director turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Being around other people and their acute grief is comforting to me somehow. It makes me feel less alone, and stronger, when I see the way that all human beings must deal with and overcome that final separation of death. And there is such a feeling of accomplishment and peace for me when a family thanks me for helping them. Stella comes up often in my work. I share her with anyone and everyone when it is pertinent, or I think it will be helpful. I have also had the incredible opportunity of sharing Stella’s story at various conferences around Canada in the last year, sharing with groups of Funeral and Cemetery professionals the lessons and legacy of Stella Joy. I have needed to find a way to keep saying her name. To keep proving to myself, and to others, that she mattered. That she only lived three years but she made a difference.

She is the reason that I have the opportunity to wake up each morning and help another family trying to navigate the deep and complex waters of grief and trying to plan a ceremony to honour their loved one. She is the reason that my kids have been to Medieval Times twice in two months, to the zoo, the pumpkin patch, bike riding after school. She is why they get trips to the store for ice cream and any Hallowe’en costume they want (Hugo was THIS close to being Tinkerbell this year, but changed to a knight at the last minute swayed by the little plastic sword). He is why Aimee and I never seem to have money to go out for dinner, but always have enough to take them to Great Wolf Lodge. She made our family stronger and closer. She reminds me not to get frustrated at traffic or lineups. To tell people that I love them whenever I get the chance. She taught me to enjoy the little moments of life, the bath times and the evening walks. Because, the little things are really the big things.

We will be spending Stella’s death-anniversary at Great Wolf Lodge again. Since all the dates are so close, we will also celebrate Sam and Xavier’s birthdays there. (Sam turns 4 October 20, Xavier turns 4 October 21 and Stella died October 22). It’s been interesting seeing how happy and excited the boys are to be going to Great Wolf Lodge to celebrate birthdays while the adults know that we are also going to mark an occasion we would rather forget. This cluster of dates is such a reflection of what our life is like now. Balancing joy and heartbreak all in the same breath, learning to find happiness and joy in while still honouring grief as we navigate both happy and sad occasions.

We are in a rhythm now. We know how to mark certain days and how to anticipate what is coming. There is normalcy again. There is hope and light and laughter and true joy. We are guided by our precious Stella star who reminds us each and every day to find something to be grateful for. I would give anything to hold her again and to tell her how amazing she is, but I know I can’t. So instead, I will continue to look to her for strength and find her inside of me whenever I am lonely.

“Pain can change you. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change, if you take that pain and turn it into wisdom”.

Love you always baby girl.

A little ice cream at the zoo for Stella:


Change of Season…fall for Sam & Hugo:



Letter to Stella from cousin Gracie:


At the Pumpkin Patch:


Remembering that smile always and forever.  Stella, age 2:


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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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