Em­brac­ing, learn­ing from all of life’s ex­pe­ri­ences

Book of­fers uni­ver­sal truths as mother chan­nelled her grief into pos­i­tiv­ity

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

Back in 2016 when her son was sick, Jessica Janzen Ol­stad kept a one-litre tub of hand san­i­tizer at the front door of her home.

She and her hus­band con­stantly wore face masks. She wouldn’t let any­one who ex­hib­ited even the slight­est sign of ill­ness into her house. A friend did all the fam­ily’s gro­cery shop­ping. Ol­stad was metic­u­lous about hand­wash­ing and ob­sessed with germs. She and her hus­band rarely left the house.

“We were very much in our own iso­la­tion,” says Ol­stad. “If you want to talk about par­al­lels in that to this time pe­riod, in one sense you could say it pre­pared us for this.”

When Ol­stad’s son Lewis­ton was three-and-a-half months old, he was di­ag­nosed with a rare ge­netic dis­ease called Spinal Mus­cu­lar At­ro­phy (SMA). The dis­ease af­fects the respirator­y sys­tem, which means even a com­mon cold can be fa­tal. Lewis­ton spent the fi­nal three months of his life at the hospi­tal and passed away in his mother’s arms in Novem­ber of 2016.

Those months in self-iso­la­tion may have more than pre­pared her for what her fam­ily and the rest of the world are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic. On the other hand, one might sus­pect the lock­down may have also brought back painful mem­o­ries and waves of pro­found grief as­so­ci­ated with los­ing a child. But over the years, Ol­stad has found ways to mit­i­gate her grief and fo­cus her en­ergy on pos­i­tiv­ity and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Adopt­ing the par­lance of self-help, Ol­stad says she grew to rec­og­nize and re­spond to the “nudges” in her heart.

“In that time, we made a choice,” says Ol­stad. “We said we would bring the joy. Be­cause the out­come didn’t look good. There was no hope, no cure. There was noth­ing we could re­ally do to fix the prob­lem. With all of the neg­a­tive news around us with the ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis and not know­ing what it looked like. Would this be his last day? Would this be his last breath? We had a lot of touch-andgo mo­ments. We chose to bring the joy and through that sparked this move­ment. I be­lieve it is now my life’s work and my life’s pur­pose.”

In mem­ory of her son, Ol­stad founded the Love for Lewis­ton Foun­da­tion. So far, it has raised more than $700,000 through an­nual fundrais­ing events held each year on May 25, Lewis­ton’s birth­day. She has also just writ­ten a book, Bring the Joy, will chron­i­cles her tragic story but also of­fers a model for em­brac­ing and learn­ing from all life’s ex­pe­ri­ences: the triv­ial, the joy­ful, the dev­as­tat­ing.

So, while there may be sur­face sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Ol­stad’s life in iso­la­tion car­ing for a ter­mi­nally ill child and the lock­down most of the world is only slowly emerg­ing from now due to the pan­demic, Ol­stad thinks her book will res­onate be­yond them.

It of­fers a roadmap to help peo­ple take con­trol of their own men­tal well-be­ing dur­ing dif­fi­cult times. It has been said that the pan­demic con­tin­ues to have an im­pact on a large swath of the pop­u­la­tion’s men­tal health, ramp­ing up anx­i­ety and sink­ing many into de­pres­sion. Even those who have not suf­fered di­rect losses from the pan­demic may be feel­ing some­thing akin to grief dur­ing the months of self-iso­la­tion. While ob­vi­ously writ­ten long be­fore COVID-19, Bring the Joy is ded­i­cated to “any­one who is in or has been in the dark­ness.”

“I don’t rate grief on a scale,” she says. “I don’t say ‘Well, you lost your dad and he was 89 but I lost my son and he was still a baby so my grief is more sig­nif­i­cant than yours.’ There’s no such thing as rat­ing grief on a scale. That’s some­thing I re­ally want to make abun­dantly clear. I be­lieve loss is loss, no mat­ter in what for­mat it comes.”

The book of­fers tan­gi­ble ad­vice about han­dling grief, of­fer­ing an of­ten in­ti­mate glimpse of what worked and what didn’t for Ol­stad and her fam­ily.

“There is no word to de­scribe grief be­cause it’s con­stantly mov­ing and chang­ing,” she says. “It’s heavy on some days and lighter on others. But I wrote a short­list of things that helped me. Ev­ery­thing from go­ing to a coun­sel­lor, be­ing hon­est with my feel­ings, work­ing out, eat­ing right, show­er­ing and sim­ply mak­ing my bed. I also wrote about how to help peo­ple nav­i­gate grief and help fam­i­lies walk through that. We had stupid things and also help­ful things. One of the ex­am­ples was: leave the chili at home. I think we prob­a­bly had 15 buck­ets of chili dropped off on my doorstep. It wasn’t that we weren’t thank­ful, but one hu­man be­ing can only con­sume so much chili.”

Ol­stad ac­tu­ally be­gan writ­ing the book prior to her be­com­ing preg­nant with Lewis­ton. It was ini­tially go­ing to be a love story about her and her hus­band, but the project took on more ur­gency after the fam­ily went through the loss of their son.

A for­mer fit­ness in­struc­tor, Ol­stad now spends most of her time work­ing for the foun­da­tion and as a speaker. In its third year, the an­nual fundraiser for SMA re­search and for the Al­berta Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal be­came a on­line af­fair due to the pan­demic, but it still man­aged to raise $76,000 through a “vir­tual In­sta­gram-a-thon.” Ol­stad and her hus­band have been self-iso­lat­ing with their five-year-old daugh­ter and one-year-old son, which has un­der­stand­ably not al­ways been easy. As with every­one else, they are look­ing for­ward to get­ting some sort of nor­malcy back in their lives.

“When we are talk­ing about COVID and real feel­ings and how peo­ple are grieving, is that it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent for each per­son,” she says. “There’s no judg­ment in that. I’m not walk­ing in some­body’s shoes. I’m not aware of all the lay­ers of what their loss is or what they are grieving or how this is per­son­ally im­pact­ing them. I think we need to be hon­est and real about that.”

Jessica Janzen Ol­stad thinks her book Bring the Joy will res­onate with peo­ple dur­ing these try­ing times.

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