When news broke of Connie Johnson’s death, it hit one Hunter woman harder than most. Clare Elsworth did not know Connie, but it was the memory of losing her own sister Wendy that surged to the surface.
Ms Elsworth had followed the story of Connie and her brother, actor Samuel Johnson closely, especially the Love Your Sister campaign. It was a daily reminder that she too had a sister who was struck down by illness and taken too soon. Knowing the grief that was to come, Ms Elsworth decided to sit down and pen a very personal letter to Samuel Johnson.
“Saturday would have been Wendy’s birthday,” Ms Elsworth said.
“Connie passed away on the Friday, the timing just made it hit me hard. I had a splitting headache and I thought maybe if I write this, it might help the tension in my head.”
What came out was a beautiful letter which described the everyday grief of losing a loved one and how there is no ‘getting over it’. There is however, the ability to keep going.
“I had not come to terms with Wendy not making it,” she said.
“When she did pass I kind of went into autopilot. I saw a video of Sam on the weekend and I looked at the way he was speaking and I thought ‘I know’. It just triggered something for me.”
The letter was published on popular website Mamamia and quickly went viral. The raw way Ms Elsworth had managed to put her experience into words was something many people could relate to.
“My phone blew up on Saturday night,” she said.
“All these strangers were contacting me and writing beautiful things, it was amazing.
“It was like this thread that so many people living with grief could relate to.”
The publication of the letter held special symbolism for Ms Elsworth, because Wendy was a published academic with the University of Newcastle.
“Now I have my first publication too, which was about her, on her birthday,” she said.
My heart aches for you and your family. I really dropped my bundle when I learned of Connie’s passing on Friday night. Today my sister Wendy would’ve turned 42. She died four years ago, aged 37, leaving behind two awesome daughters, a loving husband, and an army of friends and family. I feel your pain.
I’d like to tell you that the pain of grief gets easier, but grief is a different ride for everyone. I’ve never been good at hearing ‘stay strong’ or ‘she wouldn’t want you to feel this way.’ I don’t want to feel this way either, but my sister died and it hurts; she was awesome and now she’s not here and frankly it sucks a big one.
A couple of months after Wendy died, I saw my psychologist. She had seen me through my marriage ending, so I thought I should check in with her. The most valuable thing she told me was not to wait to feel better about my sister dying, but to instead make space in my heart for where that pain sits. I will never be OK with my 37 year old sister dying, so there was no point waiting to feel better about it. I cannot tell you the sense of relief that permission gave me. To this day those words sit with me. I feel the big stuff, and then get on with it. I might view life through a shattered lens, but I give it a red hot go. I enjoy life because I know how blessed I am to have it. I celebrate birthdays because getting older is a privilege not afforded to everyone.
When Wendy was going through treatment, there were times she was in hospital for days on end, and couldn’t feel the sun or breathe fresh air. I remember sitting with her on a bench seat outside the hospital one day after one of these stints and she closed her eyes, tilted her head to the sky and felt the sun on her face. We sat in silence, feeling the sun, breathing the air. I do the same thing whenever I can, feeling it for the both of us.
I try to do some of her favourite things sometimes too, like eating mint choc-tops at the movies. She loved that. As a single mum, I don’t get to the movies often, but when I do, I get stuck into a mint choc-top for Wendy. Since today is her birthday, I’ll have a margarita and some turkish delight for her too. She didn’t drink much but she loved a good margarita. Truth be told, I don’t need it to be 9th September for a margarita!
I remember reading once about the wave of grief and how it is pretty continuous for a while, but then there becomes space between the waves before the next crash. It rang true for me. I don’t cry every day anymore, and sometimes now the memories make me smile instead of bawl. For at the least the first two years, when something major would happen, or something funny happened that I HAD to share with her, I still went to call her. I’ve bawled on many a street when it hit me that I couldn’t call her. Don’t feel crazy if that happens to you too, I hear it’s pretty common for those of us familiar with the grief train.
Be kind and gentle to yourself. One day at a time. They will be different; some will be flat out horrendous and others will be full of the good stuff. Feel it all and keep going. That’s all you’ve got to do. Just get up that one more time when you think you can’t. Big love mate.
Just one day after being awarded one of the highest honours in Australia, Connie Johnson has died of cancer.
"We lost Connie today", brother and actor Samuel Johnson announced on Friday night.
"Or, as she asked me to say, she died of cancer today."
The Canberra mother-of-two was surrounded by family at her hospice bed at Clare Holland House, where she was facing the end of a long battle with breast cancer.
"It was so beautiful," Samuel said. "We laughed, we cried, we sang stupid songs from our childhood to her."
"She went so richly, and with such grace. Trust me, she was genuinely cushioned by your love, till the end."
On Thursday, the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove "cut through the red tape" to award Connie a Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of her tireless work for those with cancer.
The honour came "just in time", Samuel said.
"It so nearly didn't happen," he told Fairfax Media. "Connie was fading and we weren't sure she'd be conscious for it."
It is understood she was to receive the honour at next year's Australia Day awards, but, with Connie's time rapidly running out, the ceremony was brought forward.
"The General just came right away, pushed the whole thing forward," Samuel said. "He made her feel like a million bucks and charmed the socks off the entire family."
Connie was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 2009, after previously defeating a tumour in her leg as a child.
She launched the charity organisation Love Your Sister in 2012 in an effort to raise funds for cancer research. In February 2016, Samuel announced his retirement from acting in order to help focus on Connie's fundraising efforts.
Together they raised millions for cancer research, including more than $2 million in May when a Canberra netball court became a sea of silver five cent pieces for Connie's Big Heart Project.
On Thursday night, Samuel described how Connie's eyes danced "like when we were kids" as the medal was handed down with a little pomp and a lot of laughter in a quiet, bedside ceremony with Sir Peter.
"She looked so alive," Samuel said. "My heart is complete."
The Johnson family has encouraged supporters to leave a message on Connie's tribute wall at loveforconnie.org.au