How Monique finished her degree after losing her ‘best friend’
Business student fulfilled her mother’s wish to graduate by end of 2019
“I was 19 when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I was 20 when I was told she was terminal. I was 21 when she passed away. Now, I’m 22.”
Monique Herald is trying to capture the pain and the sorrow of the past few years, and this is the simplest way she can articulate what she has gone through in the course of her early adult life.
When she began studying at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2016, fresh out of high school, her life looked completely different than it does today.
“I had so much fun when I started at University. So many of my friends were at the Uni. My first year was awesome.
“My Mum was an accountant by trade. She really helped me throughout the first year of my degree. She was the one who encouraged me to study commerce. She would tutor me in first year Accounting and Finance, and she loved that she could help me with it”
Today (Tuesday 17 December), Monique is celebrating her graduation from UOW. She is thrilled to finally be marking the end of her studies, but the moment is bittersweet, as she is without her “best friend”, her mother, who passed away just over a year ago.
Monique has earned a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Marketing, but there have been many times when she didn’t imagine she would make it across the finish line.
After that idyllic first year of University, Monique’s mum, Susan, fell ill.
“It’s hard talking about my Mum’s illness, as I want her to be remembered for the woman she was, not the disease that took her life. She was a beautiful woman, a loving mother, a successful businesswoman. She was one of a kind and had a heart of gold,” Monique said.
“It was in the first semester of my second year [in 2017], and we didn’t know what was wrong. You don’t tend to think the worst, I never in a million years expected it to be what it was. Then the diagnosis came, and it was stage 3 oesophageal cancer.
“It was just before my final exams for that semester. She was fine one day, but within days, she went into hospital for months. It happened so quickly. I remember sleeping at the hospital with her every night. When my Mum would finally fall asleep and her pain would subside, I would pull out my laptop and study for those upcoming final exams for my autumn session in 2017.
“By the time they found the cancer, it was too late. Her oesophagus was completely blocked with a tumour. She was unable to swallow any food or liquid and had to be fed and medicated through a tube in her nose.”
Monique had grown up living with her mother and sister. With her sister, Brittany, only a semester away from finishing her own degree, it fell to Monique to take on the brunt of the caring. Monique was her Mother’s carer from the date of her diagnosis until the date of her death. Monique’s progression in her degree was impacted by this, as there were semesters that Monique had to defer completely, semesters Monique studied part time, or when Susan was stablised Monique tried to manage her condition and a full-time study load.
Susan underwent a life-threatening operation to attempt to remove the tumour, as well as 30 rounds of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiotherapy. For a moment, it looked like Susan was in remission, on the road to recovery.
Then, the small, tight-knit family received the worst possible news. The cancer had spread to Susan’s liver, and then her lungs. Susan had stage 4 cancer and was given a terminal diagnosis.
"I can’t even articulate how that felt, I fell to the floor, I was heartbroken,” Monique said. “Once the cancer came back, there was nothing they could do. She continued with chemotherapy, not to cure the cancer, but to prevent its growth.”
Monique Herald with her sister Brittany, holding a photo of their mother Susan. Photo: Aristo Risi
Monique was told by Susan’s medical team that they would encourage her to study full-time as the chemo had prevented Susan’s terminal cancer from growing, so she was in a stable condition and her life expectancy could be increased. Monique went back to UOW full time in July last year, only for Susan’s condition to decline rapidly and unexpectedly.
Monique was by Susan’s side from that moment on. Susan was moved into palliative care. Every night, Monique slept in her hospital room, on a rollaway bed. She did not leave the hospital.
The 20-year-old witnessed countless devastating moments during this time as she watched her mother’s health decline. It is a period that remains deeply seared into Monique’s memory, so much so that she now suffers PTSD.
“I remember I had one essay left to write for that semester, and I was trying to write it while my mum was in palliative care, just to submit it and not have to worry about it. My Mum even at her weakest, tried to talk me through what I should write and helped me through it.
“There are no words to explain how awful it was. It was the worst period of my life. I didn’t ever want to leave her side in case she died when I wasn’t there.”
Susan passed away in October 2018, a few weeks after Monique turned 21. It was a devastating time for the young family; the two sisters, both in their early twenties, had lost their mother and guiding light.
“The three of us were unbelievably close,” Monique said. “Our Mum was our best friend. Then, it was just my sister and I who came back home that day.”
Before she died, Susan made Monique promise to finish her degree. And she gave her a deadline – the end of 2019.
“My Mum said to me not long before she died, ‘I don’t care if I am dead or alive, finish your degree by the end of 2019’. So that is exactly what I did. I had to go through losing my Mum, hosting her funeral, and then straight back to University to finish my tech fail exams that semester.
“People hear, ‘My Mum had cancer’. What they don’t know is what that cancer diagnosis did to our lives. They don’t know of the constant trips to hospital, the grueling Cancer Treatments, the horrendous side effects of the treatments, the numerous surgeries, the scans to check on the cancer, the drop in your stomach when you are given bad news, the trauma of seeing someone you love on life support in the ICU, the comatose state I had to see my Mother in, the months upon months I spent sleeping on a rollaway bed by my mum’s bedside. And that is only a snippet of it, I could go on for hours.”
“People hear, ‘My Mum died’. What they don’t see is that a part of me died that day too. They don’t know what that moment and all the time to follow was like for my family. The responsibility of planning and speaking at her funeral, having to choose her resting place and memorial piece, the legal proceedings, the post-traumatic stress, the loneliness, depression and isolation. It’s funny how people can see you, and think you are doing fine. But in reality, you haven’t slept without a traumatic nightmare in weeks, have gone three days without eating anything, and have mental breakdowns when nobody is around. I suffered a lot in silence, which can be mistaken for having moved on or gotten over it. Which is impossible, as I will never get over it.
“What happened to Mum really affected my life. My early adulthood wasn’t an early adulthood anymore, it was centred around my mum’s illness and death.”
The goal Susan set gave Monique just a year to complete the three subjects she was enrolled in at the time of her mum’s death as well as finish another remaining 10 subjects. Despite her grief, Monique knew she had to fulfil her mother’s wish.
“I had fallen so far behind. I just kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
She went back to University only weeks after losing her mum to complete her final exams and subjects for that session. She enrolled in summer semester, taking on two subjects, and then enrolled full-time for the rest of the academic year. In addition, Monique was heavily grieving the loss of her Mum, no longer living with parents, and juggling two jobs and an internship to try and support herself.
A disability support worker, Monique had continued working throughout her mother’s illness, which meant that after caring for Susan, she would then go and care for others living with a disability.
“I love my work, I love working in the disability sector,” she said. “I’ve been doing it since I left school. I formed an amazing bond with a beloved client, who I sadly lost to cancer as well.”
Even though times were tough, and she didn’t think she would make it, Monique finished her final exam last month. Against all the odds, Monique came first in one of her final subjects, Social Marketing, as well as scoring really well overall in her degree.
“My Mum becoming sick and passing away changed my life. I had to work so much harder in every area of my life to get to where I am today. I wanted to finish my degree for her.
“When I enrolled in 2016, I never would have expected my life to look like this. My Mum was very actively involved in my life and my degree, and now she’s not here to see me graduate.”
A year on from her mother’s death, Monique is still dealing with the aftermath of her immense loss and trying to heal. While she has the support of her loved ones, she is both thrilled and surprised that she was able to push through her grief to finish her degree.
Now, Monique is excited to where her qualifications will take her.
“It was so challenging for me to study and learn new things. Grief changes how your brain functions and makes it difficult to retain new concepts and information, so I’m genuinely shocked that I not only passed everything in that state, but that I actually excelled,” Monique said.
“I have been so lost without her. She was the most intelligent, hardworking and successful woman I knew. She was my role model and I have really suffered without her guidance and support. She was my best friend so I have been so lonely without her. There is truly no words to explain what losing her has meant to me.
“I know she would be so happy that I’m here today graduating. We used to talk about this day so much, so it is definitely bittersweet that the day is finally here, but she is not. She would give me a high five and tell me how proud she is of me and my achievements. Even though she isn’t physically here with me, I know that she is beside me saying, ‘That’s my girl’.
“While there is no doubt this time has been extremely difficult, I have had so much support from the University. The compassion and empathy I have been shown has really helped me through. Even though I have had a really shocking few years, I wouldn’t have wanted to study anywhere else while I was going through this absolute rollercoaster.”