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It's a grieving wife's way of having her husband near for one more Christmas.
In Carol Anne Reese Parrott's dining room – "in a spot where I'm not staring at it all the time, but it's there when I need to" – stands a Christmas tree, unique in its design, irreplaceable in its significance.
Its garlands are made mainly of hospital bracelets worn by her husband, Mike Parrott, who died in August less than a year after being diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. He was 55.
"As much as Christmas decorating and even thinking of Christmas has been painfully hard, I guess this is my way of having Mike present for Christmas," Carol Anne says of the tree (pictured below.)
"And it acknowledges the journey we as a family went through, together by his side."
After Mike's first few trips to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Carol Anne says he started cutting off the hospital bracelets and linking them together. It made her think of garlands you'd make in school as a kid, the ones with green and red construction paper that would hang in classrooms this time of year.
"Last fall, I told him the hospital bracelet garlands would be on our next Christmas tree and he seemed good with that idea," she says.
In addition to the bracelets, the tree includes snowmen with the names of their three children, a white nutcracker, antique wishing bells and angels with drums – an instrument Mike played in his youth.
"The tree is decorated in white and silver," Carol Anne says. "They are colours of honour and respect."
Coping with grief
Marking the first year of holidays or family traditions without a loved one is often very difficult, says Reverend Dr. Marc Doucet, Manager of the Spiritual Care Department at UHN.
"Holidays or family traditions tend to bring up a lot of past memories because these are markers we have in the year," he says. "The advice I give is to give yourself permission to feel what you're feeling and know this is the normal process of grieving."
It can sometimes be challenging to know how to support someone grieving the loss of a loved one, but it's important to continue to extend invitations to connect, without pressuring them, Marc adds.
Carol Anne says she's also learning to be comfortable reaching out to people when she needs to.
"For others in a similar situation I would say don't be afraid to reach out and ask when you need support, even if it's just a hug," she says. "I think you feel better when you do and then people also become more in tune with what you need."
Mike was an avid runner who participated in 19 marathons – at least one on every continent. In the summer of 2017, he began feeling discomfort on his right side, especially when laying down, and experiencing consistent bouts of nausea.
In November 2017, he was referred to the Princess Margaret where he was diagnosed with stage 4 gallbladder cancer, which had already begun to spread significantly to his other organs. He was treated by Dr. Paul Greig, a surgical oncologist at the Princess Margaret, and he would later be cared for by the palliative care team at Brampton Civic Hospital.
Mike's passion for running is something Carol Anne plans to continue to keep alive with an annual Mike Parrott 5 km walk/run on the Sunday before Labour Day weekend.
She says she still pulls out one of her husband's favourite books,
Running From Start to Finish by John Stanton, founder of the Running Room, which contains visualization exercises he'd read aloud to her before every marathon, to help him persevere the way he did.
"I used to call it 'Twas the Night Before Marathon'," she says. "It talks about repeating phrases during your run like, 'I am strong. I am in control. I feel good.'
"It comforts me in a way now to help me succeed at whatever I put my mind to."