When media personality Zoe Marshall’s mum passed away 12 years ago, she had no idea how much grief could help her grow. Since then, the vivacious mum and wife of footballer Benji Marshall has worked tirelessly to navigate the ups and downs of loss, proving that there is life – a bright, vibrant, purpose-filled life – amidst tragedy.
At the tender age of twenty Zoe Marshall discovered her mum Jan had breast cancer. After numerous rounds of chemo and radiotherapy, Jan’s weakened immune system was hit with pneumonia, which eventually claimed her life. With minimal life skills, zero stability and few people to lean on, Zoe had to learn not just how to survive, but to thrive. Here, she shares her courageous story.
How did your mum cope with her diagnosis and consequent treatment?
She was always the most amazing woman but it just heightened that. She was so strong, so positive, such a fighter. She didn’t give up until the end – she didn’t give up at all. I had to give her permission to go because she wouldn’t leave.
Giving her permission to leave must have taken so much strength on your part, right?
It was the most exquisite moment of my life – apart from the birth of my son. At times mum’s death feels more exquisite and I don’t know why, maybe because it’s finite or that I haven’t really ever acknowledged how beautiful it was, but it was just profound.
It was just her and I when I came into this world and it was just her and I when she left. I didn’t call everyone around to say their goodbyes, I didn’t panic her. It was like I had this wisdom, despite knowing so little about death, that allowed me to be completely in sync with mum. It was just incredible.
In those final moments were you ever scared?
The doctor came in and told me she was going to go. He warned me that it can be quite traumatic for some people so just be aware of that, but for some reason I had no fear around that. I think it’s because it was my worst nightmare so I just went into auto pilot, management mode. I just made it all about mum and said to myself, “I don’t know what I’m doing so let’s just go head first.” There’s no other way around it. I couldn’t turn and crumble because she needed me. She’d been there for everything in my life and then if I was going to be selfish and make it about me, what kind of experience is that for her to go out on. So it wasn’t a thought, I was just ‘in it’.
What was the moment of her passing like?
She was alive – in and out of consciousness – all night. It was the early hours of the morning and it was just her and I and it was so beautiful. She was the shell of the woman that she had always been, cancer just ravages all of you, but it was just so peaceful and beautiful. We had had conversations the night before and she had really just said everything she needed to say to me and I said everything I wanted to say to her. I wish I’d asked more questions in retrospect but at that point in time it was really beautiful.
I became the mum, I held the space for her to relax. I just wanted her to be in as much peace as she could be in and she really was. There was lots of small, beautiful strange moments and I think that’s what death is.
As her breathing became more laboured I could sense she was going. I was holding her hand and I knew she needed to know I was going to be okay. So I just said “I’m so okay. I’m going to be so wonderful and all I ask of you, if you can – no pressure but if you can – can you give me a sign.” She was still very restful and then she squeezed my hand and she left. It was so beautiful. It was just so beautiful.
So she gave you a sign?
The extraordinary thing about it all is that she did give me a sign and she continues to do so. After she passed I eventually went home, I was living in an apartment on the 38th floor in the city and I hadn’t been home in quite awhile and all the doors and windows were shut. I went in and the place was covered in moths, like flying around, so many moths that it was so odd. They’re not the prettiest thing, but I was totally fine with that, whatever way you want to show up is cool, but it became ‘the thing’ and she’s turned up everywhere. She’s turned up the night before my wedding and when we bought our house she was at the front door. I see her when I’m with my baby and she’s in his room. She kept her promise.
Does knowing she’s there give you some resolve?
It’s not the same. It’s so hard, especially when you have a baby. So, so hard.
How did you get through those first hours, days and weeks?
To be honest I was purely in denial for a really long time. I couldn’t comprehend her being gone for years – it’s only been a handful of years since I’ve really recognised it. The denial really protected me, I don’t think I would have been able to cope. I would have been severely mentally unwell if I stepped into that grief immediately. That wasn’t a choice, that was just self preservation on a subconscious level. I used to say “if she ever died I would kill myself”, and I think that’s quite literal, so denial was key to my survival.
What tools help you through the tough times?
I just try to have immense amounts of gratitude to keep me okay. I had her for so long and the love affair that we had is very, very rare. I don’t know anyone who had a love like ours, so to have had that for so long I’m very grateful and I think that keeps me okay.
Since mum’s passing my spiritual practice has become a lot deeper and after her death I did a lot of therapy, I did a course called The Path of Love, which was really important for me to do, it was a very cathartic workshop. I had a lot of rage and pain that wasn’t held well, and I needed that held by the right people.
I did a lot of work after mum’s passing for many, many, many years on the loss. And I’m still doing the work. I have a great therapist and she helps me, but this isn’t a wound that’s ever going to go, it’s never done, but accepting that it’s always going to be there and then being okay with then it turn up really helps me.
Zoe’s Grief Toolkit
Intensive Healing Workshops
What have you learned from your mum’s passing?
I had no life skills when mum passed and for a while I was really angry about that. It was so hard and so complex. I didn’t know how to live, but I grew up so quickly and I learned so much so fast, which was awesome because I adult quite well now.
How have you grown from this experience?
Oh wow! The growth is monumental. Like, it’s inexplicable. Spiritual growth, human growth, relationship growth… every element of my life has grown because of mum’s passing. I was really thrown in the deep end of every facet of life. I had two options: turn to drugs or even suicide to numb my emotions or do the work.
What made you decide to do the work rather than go down that dark road?
I think I wanted to survive. I knew the odds were against me, they weren’t in my favour, and I just wanted to survive. It’s something that burns within you, I don’t think it’s a named thing that you can put into words.
I’m so glad I didn’t leave, life is so beautiful and in those moments you don’t think there’s anything after life without somebody, but you just keep going and then small things will turn up – like seeing the sun will mean something again or you’ll smile at something and not think of her death. You’ll forget for a moment – and you remember you can do beautiful things for yourself and you have goals and dreams. It’s this weird dance because you think I don’t want any of that stuff because you’re so full of grief and then you go “actually I want this”.
What has death taught you?
It’s taught me resilience. That’s the biggest key. I think it’s also taught me that things can be a lot worse. Understanding that where you are is really great, because it could be a lot worse.
What has surprised you on your journey?
My strength and my rapid growth at such a young age. I was 21 and just figuring it out real quick. It was survival. Questions like, what do I have to do to get a little apartment to live in? What is it going to take for me to learn self care? You don’t often think like that in your early twenties.
It also taught me how to cope with other people’s grief and how to hold space for people that aren’t okay, because in the work that I did I was so beautifully held – by strangers most of the time to be honest – and how powerful that is and how people need that.
How can we better support each other through grief?
Just be there. Turn up. Even when they don’t want you to turn up, turn up with some groceries or turn up with something – you’ll know if they can see you or not. And if they can see you just sit. You don’t need to do anything, just say, “I just want to sit with you. I can’t fathom what you’re going through, there’s nothing I can say, but I just want to be here.”
Saying things like “it all happens for a reason” and all that stuff is not helpful, so say nothing or say I don’t know what to say.
Be okay with people not being okay and seeing them cry ugly cries and fluctuating through emotions and holding that space. Don’t run, don’t try to fix, just let it all go and know that grief is such a long, winding road.
What’s been the most difficult part of all this?
The not having her. It’s even worse now that I’ve had a baby. I was coping okay on my own and now I have him I need her. Now’s the worst part to be honest and to get through it all I’m turning to people that can help me. I’m talking to my therapist when I need to, I’m doing a lot of self care, I’m sleeping a lot and making sure my mental health is okay so I don’t get too moved by that.
How would you like to be remembered?
Similar to my mum. She was the greatest woman and if one person can say that about me that’s enough. The way I would want to go out is to be cremated and spread around Balmoral, where she was, and for everyone to have a big beautiful lunch with incredible wine and great food and tell stories – that would be enough.
All images courtesy of @zoebmarshall.