Russell's Legacy

At the first hospital he was sent to, the medical approach and process made Russell feel isolated and depersonalised. In the last weeks of his life he recorded his thoughts and feelings on tape about this and the process of coming to terms with his illness.

Andrea, his mother, explains it this way:

“Russell found it very difficult to develop a doctor/patient relationship based on trust rather than on dependence and compliance. He found that the doctors were not open to him as a person. They were also not open to any extra, holistic support for him; in fact, it was totally rejected. At one point Russell said: ‘I am totally depersonalised at the hospital. They say: ‘Here comes the lymph’ meaning ‘the lymphoma patient’.
“From this came a loss of personal power and for a time he was depressed. But instead of making him a compliant patient, it got him fighting. He reached out to other cancer patients, despite the lack of support from his clinician, forming a self-support group with them and speaking about his experiences more widely on the radio.
“Towards the end of his 18-month journey of deepening self-awareness and an inner, healing transformation, he gave a few talks about his process, which were recorded.
“He talked about the crisis of a family with cancer; the difference between hope and faith, of moving from inappropriate hope to faith in oneself and the connection to one’s own being.
“The talks were on specific subjects, for example, death and dying, learning resilience, the Tao as a philosophy of being: of flowing and not fighting the flow. In this process, what developed was his spirituality.”

Andrea’s reflections on the journey with Russell

Russell’s mother, Andrea, promised him that she would help to disseminate the insights he gained from his experience that ‘healing’ is not necessarily about a cure.

Rather, healing can be experienced through the acceptance of one’s body and what is happening, and this can involve a healing of the soul and the spirit.

Andrea wrote about this way of understanding healing in an article called ‘Death in the Family: An experiential account’, with Dr Maurice Silbert, their family GP who had forged a special relationship with Russell. The focus of the article was, as Andrea wrote: ‘How the family learned to deal with the crisis of a life-threatening illness’.

The article was published in the South African Family Practice Journal in January 1988 and in Fair Lady magazine in March 1988. It outlined the process of moving from fear and anxiety during hospital treatment to finding sources of complementary treatment.

After Russell died, much of Andrea’s practice for the next 30 years as a therapeutic, clinical social worker focused on working with cancer patients and their families. She worked with the family as a system and as a team, encouraging open communication, focused on the ‘healing of the whole person’.

Death in the Family: Andrea’s Journey

In 2015, 30 years after Russell's death, Andrea finally asked a friend, Liz Mackenzie, a writer and editor, to help put together a website about Russell’s journey. This was done over several months through a series of interviews.

As Andrea says:

“I would like this website to offer a space of openness to people; to see that things are not right/wrong, black/white, but are more complex and multi-layered. To get a sense of what it feels like: the transition from struggling with the cancer to allowing the process by listening to one’s own body. With the allowing comes the possibility of the self-acceptance. Russell experienced a total turn-around.”

What follows here is an account of her side of the journey she went through with Russell, drawn from the interviews.

“Here was a young man who challenged the medical perspective, by saying that cancer was just one aspect of himself. Russell’s story was about his own journey, dealing with the crisis of cancer. It initially focused on a healing diet and then involved going to the Bristol Cancer Help Centre in England and learning to accept the realities about his body and mind.
“Most of all, it was about accepting what was happening, that the important thing was not to struggle with the illness, but about learning to accept it. He spent the first year after diagnosis in fighting strongly to beat the illness, hoping to obtain a cure. And he spent the last six months in accepting that he was dying and that he hadn't failed on this journey.
“Underpinning it all was his extreme self-awareness that became heightened as he approached death. It motivated and encouraged others to look at themselves from a wider perspective, as being people first and as people with cancer second, and also not to see cancer as the enemy, as ‘the beast’, as people then often referred to it, which was a totally negative way of seeing it.
“Russell was schooled in the western tradition of having to be focused on a goal and its achievement, unlike for example, the Chinese way of the Tao, of opening, softness, gentleness, allowing, and compassion towards oneself. On his journey he found things that helped him enormously. For example, he learned to use his breathing and visualisation which helped him to calm, ground and centre himself. Russell worked on his dreams with his therapist, and one healing image that was very powerful for him was of the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock.”
“Writing poetry served Russell throughout his life and increasingly towards the end. It was the antithesis of the intellectual, struggling part of him. As a child from the age of eight years he had been able to express himself through his poetry. Poetry was a part of him and it became a therapeutic tool to deal with living with cancer. He even composed a poem to be read at his funeral.”
“Russell was also intellectually sharp and feisty, and had a good sense of humour. This helped him as a child growing up. He had had to deal with difficult emotions due to a divorce in the family. His biological father emigrated to another country and from the age of 11 years Russell unfortunately no longer had contact with his father.”

Dealing with Illness

“Russell went on a ‘healing’ diet. The ‘healing’ diet is a tool, but it’s just one aspect and if it prevents you from looking at yourself it’s too simplistic. It is empowering up to a point, but then there comes a time of crisis and you need to adapt.
“For Russell, despite the diet and chemotherapy, after six months the cancer had spread to his kidneys. The doctors said he must have more chemo, but he said no. They told me to force him to have chemo. I said, ‘No, that’s not what he wishes.’ Dermod and I, as parents, totally supported him.
“Luckily we had been told about the Bristol Cancer Help Centre (now renamed the Penny Brohn Cancer Care) and Russell and I went there at the end of 1983. We were the first patients there from South Africa and we stayed for two weeks.
“For the first time, Russell felt it was okay to have cancer – nobody was telling him to get rid of it. At Bristol, with a gentle consultant, we had sessions of breathing, music, mediation and various other therapeutic modes treating the whole person.
“We went to Bristol to gather more insight into the psychological processes, into the emotional and spiritual experiences of the inner self in the illness. Unfortunately, we are often dominated by the mind. People don’t listen enough to their bodies.
“Self-knowledge is knowledge and awareness of the inner self, of the body, mind and spirit. And the more knowledge you have, the more empowered you are and the less likely you will be a victim to the ‘experts’. What we got from being in Bristol was clarity. Listening to the body and meditating gives one clarity.”

‘It’s okay to have cancer’

“After Bristol everything changed for Russell. He got to the point where he was able to say: ‘It’s okay to have cancer’. That’s what he discovered in Bristol and he felt such huge relief with that. In the dying, he found healing – he was no longer struggling and grasping on to life. A few days before Russell died, he said: ‘Mommy, I can’t climb the wall any more. Now I just have to go through it’.
“After Bristol, we saw a top lymphoma specialist in London. Due to a good relationship with a kind, gentle doctor who related to him as an adult, Russell respected him and felt able to accept the treatment suggested. This was organised so that we could have a holiday of quality time together in London. That was where Russell observed swans on a river. Watching them, he felt he had changed from being like a struggling Mallard duck to experiencing the serenity of the swans. He wrote the poem about the swans there.”

The importance of open communication in the family

“What was very important from early on was Russell’s and my belief in the openness of communication in the family. This also fed into my work as a therapist, not just to see the person with cancer, but to connect with the whole family, as each member is affected in different ways. The cancer precipitates a family crisis, and a crisis for each member, and each deals with it in their own way.
“A diagnosis of cancer is perceived as life-threatening. It’s like a sword of Damocles hanging over you and you are struck down, you get numbed, angry, sad, depressed. You have to go through the gamut of emotions. People who seal themselves off can never go through this journey. It’s a process of increasing awareness and unless you are willing to engage in it consciously you don’t truly allow yourself to experience the feelings. For Russell, realising that was a big breakthrough.
“Later, when he was looking back on that early stage just after the diagnosis, he said: ‘Mommy, I thought I was going to die; they said I had lung cancer, stage three, so I took to my bed’. He was propelled into the chemo and the drugs because of the urgency. The statistics are flung at you and you are not given any space for reflection and choice. In that situation, he found it very difficult to develop a doctor/patient relationship based on trust rather than on dependence and compliance.”

Developing a long-term, patient, enduring mind

“Today there is a lightening up of the process, but there is still no question to the patient: ‘What do you think?’ It is still about fighting it. Even today one of the drugs is called the Red Poison, and the cancer is referred to as The Beast.
“We found, however, that what was needed was for Russell to become gentle with his cancer, to make friends with it, to see that it was part of his body and to stop hating it, and to stop wanting to control his body. It becomes rather about developing a long-term, patient, enduring mind. You can learn to accept the ups and downs of the illness, in the sense of allowing, and being with it. Meditation was very important here as a way of learning patience and acceptance.
“As Russell became physically dependent he felt more like a little child being cared for. This was very hard for a 21 year old who regarded himself as ‘invincible and invulnerable’ as he, himself, had said. He could conquer with words. He was small in stature so he had taken on bullies with his words. He had a sharp sense of humour. He was quick-witted and it was a great strength. But he also had the courage to want to explore other ways of working with his illness.”

‘Strength doesn’t mean force’

“Another big issue for Russell was: ‘What does it mean to be strong?’ People would say: ‘You must be strong and positive’. But being strong like a clenched fist is not necessarily being strong. Strength doesn’t mean force. Bamboo can be stronger than a pine tree because it bends and is resilient in the face of high winds. One can say ‘No’ clearly but gently.”

Russell’s healing transformation

“One can only make the necessary shift when one moves from the intellect and the left brain, and stops asking all those questions like: ‘Why me - why is this happening?’ There is a purification, a distilling process. The anger and pain has to be passed through, so that you can be in the present, and not in what was or what might be.
“Russell did that distilling through his poetry, his writing and by talking into the tapes when he could no longer read or write, in the last four weeks before he died.
“Russell was also interested in the meaning of time and being in the present with what is. And he felt such huge relief with being able to say: ‘It’s OK’, in accepting what is. In the dying, he found healing.”

Final exams and posthumous graduation

“Despite his deterioration, he insisted on writing his final year exams and was granted extra time to write them. He hadn’t wanted to drop out of studying because he didn’t want to drop out of living. The doctors said he couldn’t go to write the exams because he was too ill. He wrote them on morphine, which was closely monitored by the hospice so he could manage the four-hour exam.
“Russell graduated posthumously. He knew he would graduate. In the final days when he was in a coma, but could still hear, his lecturer from the university phoned and told me that he had graduated and I told him, so he knew. He died several hours later. I accepted his degree posthumously.”

Russell’s memorial service

Russell died in August 1984 at home in Cape Town. His mother Andrea, his step-father, Dermod, whom he referred to as Dad, his sisters Delia and Melanie, and his step-brother Philip were with him when he died.

Andrea describes the memorial service:

“It was a beautiful day and we had it outside, at home. We played the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Mike O’Brien, who had been his therapist, began by speaking about Russell and what his dying and death meant.
“Then Dermod read out the Funeral Poem that Russell had written and asked him to read. We closed by playing Bridge over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel. Russell had structured the whole memorial service himself.
“I was so grateful that we’d had a chance to deal with his death – there was nothing unfinished or left unsaid – we had had time and there had been anticipatory mourning.
“Russell once said a strange thing. He said: ‘When people say, “Hello Russell, how are you?” I say to them: “I am dying”’. Three very powerful words in the English language that take much courage, strength and acceptance to say.”

Learning unconditional love

“I was the mother knowing that my son was going to die. I trusted my inner knowing from the very beginning and didn’t question it. It served me, helping me to be a step ahead of what was going on with Russell. I anticipated things so I could be, rather than the anxious mother, the one able to guide him in his best interests. And if he chose dying, that was alright. My needs had to be side-lined. I learned unconditional loving.”

As Andrea says, however, it is extremely difficult to accept that your child is going to die before you.

“I had to work with that. I learned a form of autogenic meditation, a form of self-hypnosis to bring about calmness and stability. It’s a self-empowering tool that works with the breath and scanning through the body with a repetitive formula that you follow. You can do it anywhere. I did it morning and night and it carried me through the period of his illness and dying.
“My concern was day-to-day living in the present with Russell, learning to live with what is, attuned to how Russell was, ready to drop everything to attend to him. I wasn’t overwhelmed by my own emotions, although I would cry and so would he, it was in a contained way. That’s why it was possible to also have a sense of humour – it’s important, it puts things in perspective because you can’t always be inside the pain of what will be.
“Near the end, each family member had to give Russell permission to leave. I had to, for his sake, put myself out the picture and enable him to go. I had to support him. I had to just do it.”

A healing dream

A few weeks after Russell died, Andrea had a healing dream which gave her faith:

“We used to often walk on Fourth Beach in the early morning, on those huge rocks that go down towards the sea. I had a dream that water was crashing onto the rocks and into a pool. There was a piece of clear, angular glass in the water.
“Gradually, as it was tumbled by the sea, it became rounded and softened and changed from a clear to an opaque colour. I realised what it meant. Often the anguish and grief was so great that I had an image of pushing my hand through glass.
“The dream showed that pain can be healed with the softening effect of time - as with the water’s waves. It was very significant. I would share it with some of my clients as a healing dream, that the pain and sadness don’t disappear, they become something you are able to live with and from which you can begin to find more meaning later.”

A bridge to sharing the insights

After Russell died, Andrea ran a full-time practice, seeing six to eight people a day, mainly for cancer and bereavement therapy, over the course of 30 years. She also ran workshops and ongoing groups, helping people make their own transformational shifts.

“Russell wanted me to speak about this journey of acceptance more widely, sharing it with groups, in workshops and through the National Cancer Association. The bridge between Russell dying and my speaking about it was a talk I gave at the first South African Holistic Conference at the University of Cape Town. It was an international conference and Penny Brohn from the Bristol Cancer Help Centre was there.
“Much of my private practice work was with young people, especially young mothers with cancer, who had young children. The reward is in finding the meaning, otherwise there is only the emptiness. It is what gets you through the loss of a child. You find the meaning in it afterwards. It helped me reach out to other people. That’s why I couldn’t give up the work.”

Synchronicities

Several synchronicities happened that helped Andrea to experience a sense of deeper meaning after the loss of her son. One instance involved the unexpected presence of swans at a significant time.

“Swans were an important connection for me with Russell. He wrote the poem about the swans on the water when we were together in London. They were a symbol of serenity, stillness and reflection. Four years after Russell died I went on a retreat in Denmark and stayed an extra day.
“When I went out into the countryside for a walk, I looked ahead and there were these seven swans on the water. I asked other people about them later, but no-one else had seen them. It was a gift. It was about the continuity of life and death, and that it is all interconnected.”
“Strength doesn’t mean force. Bamboo can be stronger than a pine tree because it bends and is resilient in the face of high winds.”