‘I’m looking for a new community of my kind of people’

Michael and Renee PollockRenee Pollock is looking for a tribe she wishes didn’t exist.

“I always tried to be the best daughter, the best wife, the best mother,” she said. “I honestly don’t know if I’ll be the best widow, but like other people, I have no choice but to figure that out.”

Renee’s husband died May 28, 2017. She spent the last several years advocating for Michael—a beloved Urbana High School history teacher and former Urbana City Council member—as they navigated the complicated and unforgiving world of Merkel cell carcinoma.

Now she’s looking for the fellowship of others who know what she’s going through.

To help meet that important need, Carle Cancer Center offers a relatively new support group called Healing After Loss. It aims to help address the unique sorrows and next steps caregivers and loved ones face after a death caused by cancer. The next round of free sessions begins May 1. Please call (217) 383-4581 for more information.

“Throughout the six weeks of group, our goal is to help our members understand their grief, find strength, learn tools for coping, grow from the shared experiences of other group members, and celebrate the life of their loved one,” said Kelly Harris, LCSW, asking people to RSVP before Tuesday by calling 217-383-4066.

Renee’s still-very-fresh input played a pivotal role.

“We’re grateful Renee was willing to sit down and talk to us. She’s an incredibly smart woman and played an active role in her husband’s care,” said Jason Hirschi, Carle Cancer Center director. “She provided important feedback about how much this group is needed.

“And we’d like to help ease her burden and her pain.”

Renee and Michael Pollock and their familyRenee and Michael were married for 45 years, raised two accomplished children and soaked up their grandchildren. They shared the same passion for travel, politics and intellectual debate. 

But they were very different people—both independent yet supremely devoted to one another.

“We were mighty pillars together,” she said. 

Early in their relationship, Renee recognized how different she and Michael were. While she pushes ahead, he was more retiring, more prone to recede.

Renee did what Renee does. She tackled things directly. And with heart.

Cutting to the chase worked then.

And it worked when Michael’s health rapidly changed in December.

His sudden lack of hunger and subsequent weight loss became a truly tough topic. Renee wanted him to eat, to gain strength. He retreated, he got mad, and he got confused.

“I felt terrible. I didn’t want to argue with him,” Renee said. “I told him, ‘I’ve loved you my whole life. I’m really just trying to help.’”

In January, though, after multiples tests, an MRI showed the cancer had infiltrated Michael’s brain.

After the most challenging 32-day hospital stay Renee could imagine, Michael was able to go home in early March.

“He came out of the hospital whole,” his wife said. “He didn’t have any invasive procedures, no ports or PICC lines. I focused on getting him to eat to help keep up his strength.”

Renee and Michael Pollock, the early yearsHer ability to keep going came from researching Merkel cell carcinoma and exploring options for treatment and extending Michael’s life.

“I used my intellect to do the best I could so I could look at myself in the mirror and know I had done everything I possibly could for him,” Renee said. “That’s what you do. You duke it out for the person you love.

“But now I sorely miss the constant embrace of a life of love, and I’m looking for a new community of my kind of people.”

Hirschi believes Renee will find her tribe.

“We want people to come to these sessions simply to be with others who understand and who have lost someone to the horrible disease that cancer is,” he said.

Renee hopes that’s true—that people will attend the new sessions so they can help one another.

“I have an emotional need to talk with people like me, but a loss of this nature is so hard to share,” she said. “I am open to others’ pain even as I’m in my own pain.”

Social worker Harris, along with colleague Kimberly Harden, LCSW, will alternate leading the sessions beginning using resources provided by Carle Center for Philanthropy. For more information about the sessions or to RSVP, please call 217-383-4581.