Surviving Loss: A Mother’s Story

By: Katrina Clarke ‘06

Crossing the stage at Convocation is an emotional milestone for many university graduates, but when Cheryl Wituik receives her BA in Thanatology this spring, it will be a profound moment for her and her family that will be both a celebration of her resilience and a reminder of their shared sorrow.

Cheryl has already graduated from King’s. She earned her Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2014, but on June 8 of that year, days before Cheryl was to cross the stage and collect her diploma along with her classmates, Cheryl’s son Colin died by suicide.

At 21 years of age, Colin suffered from a relatively short battle with mental illness. Living in Toronto while studying at OCAD, he began to struggle, but did not share this with his family until the following year when he disclosed during Reading Week that he was depressed. He died only a few short months later.

“He wasn’t suffering from issues when he was living at home in London.” Cheryl believes that Colin exhibited a common late-teen/early-adult onset of symptoms. “We didn’t see it, because he was in Toronto, but I began to suspect there were problems.” Cheryl found that her education in Social Work and Thanatology helped her to encourage her son to speak openly about what he was facing, but it did not make the pain of losing him easier to bear. “It’s challenging. It’s a regret that I had the knowledge to support Colin in his struggles, but was still unable to save him. On the other hand, I feel I was at least able to start conversations with him when other parents might not have had that opportunity.”

Colin is survived by Cheryl, her husband Rick and their two sons, Christopher and Tanner, as well as his grandparents, extended family and many close friends. He was predeceased by his Uncle Mike, Cheryl’s brother, who died in 2010.

In the months and years that followed, Cheryl has been immersed in both the personal and professional aspects of grief, loss and transition. Just prior to the death of her son, Cheryl had been hired by the Women’s Rural Resource Centre in Strathroy to provide systems support and advocacy to vulnerable and marginalized women. “Originally, I declined their offer, because Colin died right when I was supposed to start. But they offered to hold the position for two months, so I accepted, and had further discussions about what I might need in terms of support.”

Cheryl established very clear boundaries and guidelines with her employer that allowed her to integrate into a new job while experiencing a profound personal loss.

“The key thing was balance. I needed to have the flexibility to be open and honest with how I was feeling with my direct supervisor. I also chose to be open with my new coworkers, and I let them know what I might need from them.” Cheryl was clear about the fact that if she was having a difficult day she might need to reschedule appointments, work from a private office, or sometimes work from home. She also requested vacation time around important anniversary dates that she knew would be difficult. “It was about flexibility and trust – I needed them to be flexible for me, but they needed to trust that I was getting my work done. By accommodating me in the ways that I needed, I would be able to be at my best for the women we supported.”

Many people are surprised by Cheryl’s willingness to speak openly about her grief, but for her, accepting the losses she has experienced has made the healing process easier. “Being open sounds like it would be harder, and it can be at first. It’s scary, and we’re not used to letting ourselves go, and letting ourselves cry when we need to cry. But I have learned that doing so allows me to honour myself, and to honour the people that I have lost. They are still a part of me – they remain in my heart, but so does the pain of not having them with me. The more I allow myself to feel it, express it, the more I can heal – the opposite of what most people believe.”

After two and a half years at the Women’s Rural Resource Centre, Cheryl was recently hired by VON Oxford as a Coordinator of Client Services for Hospice and Bereavement Programs. Her work will take her to various locations throughout Oxford County, supporting individuals and families, as well as coordinating bereavement support groups and hospice volunteer visiting programs.

On the home front, Cheryl’s eldest son, Christopher, graduated from the Nursing program at McMaster University in 2015 and is pursuing a Master’s in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in England. Her youngest son, Tanner, is studying at the Stratford Chefs School, and was recently hired by a highly regarded restaurant in wine country. “I am extremely proud of them and have learned so much about love and resilience from them.”

Cheryl gives credit to her family for supporting her healing, and for encouraging her to continue her studies in Thanatology.

“Emotionally, you can imagine what our house has been like over the last few years. It’s been a roller coaster. But we remain committed to staying together as a family through this trauma. My husband and my children have lifted me up when I needed extra support. I need to acknowledge that, because I didn’t do this alone. I really wanted to show Tanner and Chris that no matter what happens in their life, they can find a way.”

When Cheryl collects her diploma at Alumni Hall on June 12, her family will be there, watching with pride. Many of her friends from the King’s community will also be there, and we are equally proud. Congratulations, Cheryl.

This article appeared in the spring 2018 issue of the King's Herald