On Susan’s Last Days

This is Roy, Susan’s partner, passing through her blog to share a few things. It has been just over four months since Susan died. I know many of you are wondering how Susan’s death project ended. I have written an account of her last days, and of her death and burial. To respect this precious place that Susan created and nurtured, I have chosen to post pieces on those events on my own blog at The Long Goodbye. I continue to write through my own grieving process, and about Susan, and her lasting effect on me and others. The Death Project will remain here as Susan wanted.

Susan, at the stream


“Each that we lose takes part of us”
Emily Dickinson

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On Susan’s Death

Susan Jeanne Briscoe
November 13, 1966 – August 31, 2018

It is with great sorrow that we announce the death of Susan on Friday, August 31, 2018 in Montreal at the McGill University Health Centre (Glen) palliative ward. Her sons, Oliver and Nathan, and her beloved partner, Roy Cross, were by her side. Susan also leaves to mourn her parents Bob and Raye Briscoe, sisters Lorraine and Tracey, brother Rob, nine nieces and nephews, and numerous dear friends.

Susan was born and raised in Montreal. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at McGill University, Susan moved to Vancouver and worked at a women’s shelter before returning home to Montreal, where her sons were born. Susan’s greatest joy in life were her two sons: Oliver and Nathan. She moved from Montreal to Sutton when her boys were young to give them freedom to roam, explore, and blossom. She home-schooled them at times, and dedicated herself to parenting with love, compassion, and kindness. They were most precious to her and she was so proud of the men they would become.

Susan loved nature and felt deeply connected to all living things; she was particularly fond of the hills and woods and streams of the Eastern Townships. The simple act of walking barefoot over mossy fields, or through tall grasses with bare legs, or witnessing bright sunlight beaming through a tree leaf, brought her such bliss. While living in Sutton she completed a certificate in Fine Arts at Bishop’s University, and earned a Master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Her book of poetry, The Crow’s Vow, was highly praised and regarded as an exceptional work.

Susan was a teacher and researcher at Dawson College in Montreal when she fell ill. After her terminal diagnosis, Susan created The Death Project, a blog in which she beautifully and honestly wrote about living and dying. The blog has touched tens of thousands of readers from all over the world. Susan loved art in all forms and took great pleasure in gallery visits, the ballet, circus, theatre, and cinema. Her taste in music ranged from Bach to Bowie to New Order. She recently created a special Canada Council for the Arts award to support women writers.

And oh, Susan’s radiant, brilliant, wonderful smile! To see it was to feel love. She lived her life with integrity, grace, dignity, and great joy. She encouraged people to give their gifts to the world, to be honest, to be kind, and — most of all — to love. Susan’s light and love will be deeply missed by everyone who knew her.

The Gentian weaves her fringes—
The Maple’s loom is red—
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.
A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare—
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are—
It was a short procession—
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be—
Summer, Sister, Seraph!
Let us go with thee!
In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze, Amen!
Emily Dickinson

Special thanks to the oncology department at the Jewish General Hospital and the palliative care unit at the MUHC (Glen). There will be a private ecological burial in the Knowlton Cemetery. A memorial service and reception will be held at the Unitarian Church, 5035 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Montreal on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. Additionally, those who so wish are welcome to celebrate Susan’s life with her family at the Briscoe’s home, 15 Spring Hill, Knowlton, Quebec on Friday, September 7, 2018 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to a women’s shelter and/or your local blood bank.

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Recommended Reading

Check out my reviews of recent books on death, dying, illness, and grief. So many excellent books!


Some of the books by my side at the moment.

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July Update

It is already July, and the lilies are blooming!


Brilliantly coloured lily stamens.

I had hoped to enjoy some chemo-free months this summer, but it seems that is not to be. My disease is progressing quickly again, so I will be starting the second line of palliative chemotherapy (doxorubicin and olaratumab) as soon as possible. This drug (olaratumab) has only recently received conditional approval in Canada and isn’t actually available yet except on compassionate grounds. Just waiting for the paperwork to go through!

Much more interestingly, I’ve also been working on a list of excellent books for you to read. It will be posted soon, with updates added as I catch up on my summer death reading!


And one of these days I hope to get around to posting more of my own writing on all sorts of topics! I have a large folder full of drafts waiting to be finalised. But the call of my wild garden has been irresistible, and I’ve had so much fun wandering the paths that Roy has cut for me and taking photos of my flowers and other wonders growing in this gorgeous season of warmth and sun and rain.

smelling roses

Smelling the roses! These ones have a divine, spicy tea scent (photo: Roy Cross).

I hope you have been well and at peace and enjoying every moment that you can get close to nature this summer!

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June Update

I feel bad that I haven’t posted anything but updates lately (I have several posts waiting for revision when we get a rainy day), but I very much enjoyed the wonderful spring instead of spending time with my laptop. I thought another update was in order, however, since corrections are necessary after my consultation in New York.

The spectacular sunrise reflection as seen from my park-side hotel room, thanks to my generous dad. After seeing this I set my alarm for 5 am each morning to treat myself to the dawn views.

I was a little doubtful about the scan report I wrote about last time, since it indicated that my tumours had, contrary to all expectations, pretty much disappeared. Another radiologist has since looked at those scans and seen multiple tumours of various sizes as before, some shrinking a little, some growing a bit. This reading is much more in line with what I was feeling in my body as well as what everyone thought would happen. I’m not sure why the scan was so misread the first time, though I know I was given only two of the three prescribed contrasting drinks before the scan, since the technicians somehow forgot one. In any case, the revised reading makes much more sense. It is also more aligned with the scan I had done last week, which shows similar masses.

I have decided to take a break from chemo with the NY specialist’s advice. Hopefully I will get a couple of months without too much disease progression before having to make more decisions about treatment. I really don’t enjoy time spent thinking, writing, or talking about this disease or how to treat it—nor time in treatment. So now I will go back to spending precious time with my dear loved ones as well as enjoying my garden and taking photos of the flowers. You can see what I’ve been looking at on my instagram page.


One of the beautiful daisies Cheryl, Roy’s ex, gave me—one of so many kind gifts I have received from her.


I was so fortunate to feel well enough to enjoy this recent trip to New York, unlike the previous two for medical consultations. This was a real vacation, with lots of walking through Central Park and the art museums and galleries with Roy. Since art and nature are two of my favourite things, I was very happy! The weather was also spectacular, so we enjoyed our porridge (there was a healthful take-out restaurant right on the corner) by the lovely lagoon in the park every morning.


We also saw Swan Lake from the second row at the Metropolitan Opera House! And some inspiring work at the MoMA! And an exhibition of Jenny Saville’s huge, fleshy paintings! (I once wrote a paper on her for a contemporary art history class, so I was delighted to happen upon this show in Chelsea.) Plus we enjoyed a relaxed Saturday afternoon lying on the lawns of Washington Square Park, where I was so happy to see young people reading books, and a day wandering Brooklyn. So many highlights to this trip!

Passersby and young women reading in Washington Square Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

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Spring Update

I’m not on my deathbed just yet! Friends are surprised when they see me out and about at a café or art gallery, looking unexpectedly well (despite also looking grotesquely pregnant), so it seems another update is in order.

The short version

I have been quite stable with palliative chemo since the winter and very happy to be feeling better as a result. I have no idea how long this will last, so I am enjoying each day as it comes!

The long version

I’ve been feeling much better since starting a second round of palliative chemo with the new year, so I knew the chemo was working. Finally in April I had a CT scan, and we were all happily surprised to learn that, though one small tumour on my bladder had grown a little, most had pretty much disappeared. My oncologist said he’d never seen this sort of shrinkage before, so he took my case to the tumour board to discuss what steps to take next. They want to look into the possibility of radiation on the one growing tumour, though it’s probably too large for that. They also want me to continue chemo, believing that if I stop, the tumours will quickly grow back, and since I have been tolerating the chemo quite well with only mild side effects, they think I can handle more.

My city garden nook for tea with friends.

But I would like to take the summer off, both to enjoy this time I have been blessed with (the whole point of the chemo) and to let my body recover. My father has made me another appointment with a specialist in this very rare disease at Sloan Kettering in New York, so we’ll see what she suggests. My guess is she’ll also recommend a break from chemo. The last two times I was in New York City to see her I was too ill to do much, so I’m hoping to still be feeling this well so I can enjoy a few days walking about the city. There is so much art to see!

The tumour news is good, and no large tumours also means less pain to manage. I can sit much more comfortably now, so I can enjoy outings to cafes and linger at the table. But I also still have malignant ascites (accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity) that cause abdominal distension, pain, and discomfort, restricting my activities somewhat (no yoga or exercise, and only a little gardening). They also indicate a very poor prognosis, as this is normally an end-stage symptom. I have other swelling too from chemo and steroids, so I’m still about twenty pounds overweight (a lot on a small person). I’ll see if I can get another drainage of the ascites, at least — a super-quick weight loss program!

Ultimately, however, I suppose the bad news negates the good news in this situation; I don’t know exactly how this disease will progress, but medical opinion is that it will.

But I am not suffering (thanks to effective pain medication!) and remain weirdly healthy, energetic, and happy.

I am especially delighted with the gift of another spring and am taking every possible moment to enjoy the flowering and greening of the world around me. I’ve been having lots of fun photographing some of the wonders of nature with that new (is a few months still considered new in the realm of technological devices?) phone that still causes me grief. It has a pretty good camera, though! You can see more of my photos on Instagram if you’re interested.

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On Trees

It is May Day, but spring has been late to this part of the planet. The daffodils are just starting to bloom, but their trumpeting seems tentative, not blasting like some springs, and the tulips aren’t yet brave enough to stretch their necks up. Leaves are a long way from gracing the trees: it has been six long months since the world was green. But the snow is finally gone and it’s warm enough for morning walks.

This reawakening of nature has nudged my spiritual side awake. My somewhat regular meditation practice, which I took up last fall (I have over the years meditated only sporadically but fruitfully), was disrupted by my pre-chemo illness at the start of winter. Then my medications (very stimulating steroids) made it too difficult for me to be still for my evening’s hour of meditation in the bath (the most comfortable place for me physically). I’ve since lowered my dosage, but now my piccline (an IV catheter in my arm that stays in long term) means no baths.

I’ve missed being in that meditative space, so it’s time to find another way in to a regular practice. I’m doing my best now to devote an hour of the day to spiritual pursuits (I like early morning, though that’s also my best writing time). I don’t want to call it meditation, since some of this time might be contemplative reading, or a nature walk, or even journal writing. I don’t think it matters, as long as my focus is on connecting to my spiritual place in the universe. I especially like walking meditation, which is most wonderful in the woods when I can get to them.

tree-with-roots-drawing-34When I sat in a brief meditation one day last week with Roy, the image of the tree came to me. I thought about the mirrored structure of the root system below ground and the branches above. The roots draw nourishment from past life, from dead organisms that have decomposed into fertile soil. The leaves on the branches gather energy from the sun, the light of the present moment. The tree then expresses itself by flowering and producing the fruit and seeds of the future.

As humans, we do this too. We are rooted in the past, formed by all that has gone before us—death, in other words. But we are also taking in everything from the present. And these two sources, past and present, or death and life, inform the expression of our selves and our creative spirit; the two together produce the gifts we offer the universe in turn—our own flowering of self and the fruits of our being.

more blossoms

So it is essential that I look to the past and understand what has come before me, as well as cultivate my relationship with death itself. Heidegger (my philosopher friend Susan Judith has introduced me to his ideas about death) would agree with this: he believed that only those who truly grasped mortality could be authentic and fully human. But it is also essential that I engage with the present moment, as the leaves with sunlight. These two dimensions are what help me to develop as a person as well as to express myself, offering my gifts to those who survive me, to the future. These pursuits will continue as long as I am alive, to the very moment of death itself.

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