Impermanence and duality have been two themes that have impacted our journey at Tomorrow Funerals. The realisation that our time on earth is impermanent and appreciation of the constant duality during our stay helps to view death in a totally different light.
The paradox of spending our days in an industry that is focused on death is that it teaches us so much about life. One of the most inspiring life lessons we have learned was a recent one, where we came across the journey of the incredibly inspiring Shonel Bryant.
We heard about Shonel via Jo Betz, who recently hosted a renewal of vows ceremony for Shonel and her husband Luke. The ceremony was just one of the many fulfilling activities the young couple have done over the past two years since learning that Shonel was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Despite beating cancer twice, Shonel recently found out that the cancer is back and it’s stage 4, with no certainty on how long she has left. A Go Fund Me page had been set up to support Shonel, Luke and their two young children Smith and Vogue – so we reached out to offer a Tomorrow Funeral as a way of supporting.
The conversation that followed was one that taught us so much and with Shonel’s permission, we wanted to share the incredible perspectives with our broader audience. When we met Shonel and Luke on a New Year’s Eve Zoom call, we didn’t meet a young lady who was angry at the world for what she was going through. Instead, we met a beautiful couple who had a more wholesome view of life than most people we’ve known and who were at complete peace with their situation.
Rather than trying to avoid the thought of death or a ‘funeral’ that would follow, Shonel has not only accepted her situation but has taken advantage of it to ensure that she cherishes every little moment knowing that each one may be the last. Every living person’s next moment could be their last, yet how many of us live presently in the current moment as if it were so? For Shonel, it means that every hug, every sunset, every moment of beauty is totally appreciated.
As for the topic of a life celebration, Shonel and Luke had already decided exactly what it is that they want to do and recently hosted a farewell party where everyone got their chance to say their final goodbyes. And when the time comes that Shonel’s life is ended, they will be doing a shrouding ceremony at home, with her body to be kept in her bedroom for a day or two where her husband, kids and immediate family can spend however much time they need with her body before our Tomorrow team will arrive to take her away for a private and dignified cremation. No funeral service, no coffin or procession, no celebrant or speeches. Just like Shonel has lived as she has wanted, she will be farewelled as she wants.
Shonel was kind enough to answer a few questions for us and we think that everyone can learn a little bit about life and death from this amazing person.
Tell us a little bit about yourself? / Your work as a designer and stylist and Nomad Styling?
I have always been a very passionate person by nature who gives anything to whatever I put my mind to. Many years ago I started an event styling business called Nomad Styling which over the years evolved into a beautiful creative business where couples from all over the globe trusted me to design and style their weddings to be a true reflection of who they are.
I was about to travel over to Morocco and Switzerland to style 2 weddings and had just started running workshops to share my knowledge when I was initially diagnosed. Instantly I closed the business down to focus on my healing.
Could you tell us about your cancer, diagnosis and path with all this?
This was in October 2019, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer. An aggressive and rarer Breast Cancer that generally affects younger women. I underwent Neoadjuvent Chemotherapy, had a lumpectomy and radiation (alongside other alternative treatments) and was in the ‘clear’.
A mere 7 months later at a routine ultrasound/mammogram they found another lump under my collarbone that turned out was cancerous. I was one of 2% of people this kind of situation happens to. My team had done everything they we’re ‘meant’ to do and beyond, however this was a bad luck kind of scenario.
Again, I underwent surgery, radiation and 6 months of chemo tablets and was given the all clear.
My follow up plan given the nature of my type of cancer was that I was very closely monitored. A mere 5 months ago I had a completely clear full body petscan so things couldn’t have seemed ‘better’ as far as the cancer went.
What followed after that was me getting a head cold with a lingering cough that persisted. After being told twice by doctors it was a post viral cough (which seemed like a likely scenario) that’s what we assumed was going on. It wasn’t until I presented with some sharper pain in my rib and wondered if the cough had caused some issues in my bones from straining so much we had an X-Ray. What they showed was inflammation, through some urgent scans beyond that we quickly found my chest and beyond were riddled with cancerous lesions and the specialists were very surprised my lungs weren’t already filled with fluid. I was told I have stage 4 terminal cancer with potentially weeks to live. The prognosis was/is very poor.
Why and when did you decide to begin ‘Support Your Girls’?
I started Support your girls during my first diagnosis as I needed a platform to share a docu series I was working on with my filmmaker friends ‘Robot Army Productions’ about my journey.
I wanted to spread the importance of early detection particularly amongst the youth of today as no one advocates for them. When you get into your 50’s in Australia you start getting letters in the mail about mammograms, however nothing in your 20’s, 30’s and often 40’s. Often young people present with symptoms at the doctors and they get shunned away saying they are too young and It’s probably nothing. This is not ok.
The importance of creating a lifelong habit of checking your pecs/breast (yes breast cancer affects all genders) is crucial. I promote it on the first of every month. Support your Girls sells slogan t-shirts that open up the conversation around this. Each t-shirt comes with a self check card showing the recipient how to perform one. Over the last 18 months after me sharing my story on the website, it has evolved into a platform where people feel understood, seen and safe. It has become a community. I’m incredibly proud of what I have created.
We love your really frank way of speaking life and death and the situation you find yourself in. Can you share anything about your journey to acceptance?
I feel that after having witnessed my own mother die from cancer in my 20’s and going through the grieving process I learned a lot about myself and the stages I need to go through to process heavy information like this in a way that works for me.
Having gone through cancer twice myself before receiving a final terminal diagnosis also prepared me, as each time I was diagnosed I reached a different stage of surrender and acceptance. This final stage now of facing a rapid terminal diagnosis has really just fast-tracked the process and everything has become so much clearer to me very quickly. Things I had previously questioned or felt like I understood have hit me in a way they have never reached before. They have become knowing, rather than something I felt I understood. They have become much deeper and engrained as a part of me.
What are the things that stand out in terms of making an end-of-life plan?
For me, this is something I have been working on for years through therapy but something that has become very clear right now is honouring my needs down to the smallest thing. Allowing what feels right in my heart/body and following that. Making an end of life plan became easy and strangely enjoyable for me at times when I did this. Knowing these things were in place and I was able to do it on my terms whilst still allowing flexibility for my family to make necessary decisions based on their needs in the moment also really helped. I understand this isn’t the case for everyone, however for me, being able to focus on what I wanted and why felt good. Allowing that feeling to reach me more than the confronting nature of it all helped. This situation is full of confronting conversations and moments, it becomes normal with time.
What were you most proud of in terms of your journey with all of this?
The way in which I have been able to ‘just be’ with what has been presented in front of me at any given moment rather than try to hold, manipulate or control it. The art of truly letting go.
It’s been a big process however to fully reach this point. In the early stages I felt a sense of urgency (due to being told I have potentially mere weeks to live) to set up lots of things for the family moving forward. So I focused on the things I needed to do as the importance of getting them done was a high priority for me at the time. Now I have had more time than anticipated the sense or urgency has faded away and a more natural organic flow state has presented itself. Leaning into that feels so much nicer and it’s a very peaceful place to inhabit on the daily. Choosing to spend my moments and days in this state wherever I can also radiates out into the people around me and their experience of this time also. It’s had a direct positive effect on my family and friends in profound ways that people feel very compelled to not only tell me but thank me for the sense of calm it has also brought them.
Are there any parts you wish you’d done differently?
Not at all. Whatever has happened has been very natural and organic, and I have learned from every little step I have taken along the way. I have been forced to grow and evolve (something I love doing anyway). But there have been beautiful lessons in every single part of this journey for me. The difficult part is to open yourself up to see them which can often be easier said than done when you’re in a place of fear or anxiety. For me the trick has been fully allowing the gratitude to reach me. Fear and gratitude cannot coexist, this I know for sure. Allowing yourself to open up and let the gratitude reach you will dissolve away the deepest rooted fears away in an instant. The two can only exist without the other. Fear is holding onto something too tightly, being too bound by it. It constricts not only our body but our mind. If we allow it, it can take over our entire being.
How do you suggest families choose their funeral providers / doctors / carers? What’s important?
I suggest they follow their gut and what feels right. It’s a feeling, this NEVER leads me astray. At times of overwhelm or heightened stress states everything can become foggy and confusing. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis this is super common.
This was definitely the case for me when I chose my surgeon. Everything felt murky, but when I met with him I was so sure he felt right. So I followed that feeling. Sometimes it’s obvious and hard to ignore, and other times it’s more subtle. I walk my way through the world doing this. To me making every decision for all providers I follow the same process.
When I met with Luke and Kate at Tomorrow funerals I had a sense of calm as though they resonated and understood what I wanted to do and achieve. There was no pressure, no expectation of ‘this is what we have to do’. It made the decision to progress with them an easy one.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew?
There is such immense beauty in simultaneously being able to experience joy and heartbreak. Intense pain and phenomenal beauty through the same lens. What we have so readily labelled polar opposites can co-exist so intrinsically if we allow ourselves the ability of leaning into them both with an open heart. It’s where the magic of life exists. Simple being with what is presented in front of us and in whatever form it inhabits in that exact moment in time. Embracing it fully and allowing it to flow, then allow yourself to flow with it. Don’t block it, try to control it, manipulate it, just sit back for the ride and enjoy its beauty.
We are so fortunate to be able to play a very small part in Shonel’s life and death. We wish her and her family all the very best in the days and weeks ahead.
If you’d like to support the Bryant family, please check out this Go Fund Me page. Additionally, Support Your Girls is Shonel’s way of helping others as she goes her own journey. 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected from people who feel a lump themselves, we encourage anyone reading this post to check out her website and take something away from this story.
In the early hours of Friday 21st January, 2022 Shonel passed away at home with her husband Luke by her side. Her family say, “She went in peace and calm, exactly as she wanted to.
We, at Tomorrow we were honoured to take her body into our care and ensure her final wishes were executed. Our deepest love goes out to Shonel’s loved ones.
. . .