When Doris Zagdanski was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, someone suggested to her it was the “worst thing that could ever happen”.
“I just looked at them and said ‘no, I’ve already survived the worst thing in the world – breast cancer is just a small stumbling block’,” the Gold Coast grandmother recalls.
“I didn’t tell them the details, just that breast cancer didn’t rate for me.”
That might sound surprising until Doris explains that, for her, the “worst thing in the world” was losing her daughter Claire to cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as it’s now known, 40+ years ago.
The 66-year-old admits that while she might have learnt to live with the grief, she has never forgotten what it was like.
She found a way to handle the pain by working as a grief educator and now training funeral directors on how to deal with people coping with the death of a loved one.
The daughter of post-World War II migrant parents who spoke only German in their Geelong home, Doris was so determined not to be “the wog kid” that she devoted herself to learning English and became an over-achieving, straight A student.
Not content with simply being bilingual, she studied Japanese in high school and then Japanese and German at university, ultimately becoming a Japanese teacher at her alma mater – Oberon High School at Belmont.
“Mum and Dad were migrants who, like so many others, booked a passage to Australia to get away from Europe after the war,” Doris recalls.
“Mum was German and Dad was Ukranian – she was 20 and he was about 27.
“They were lucky to come to a country that was very good to them and gave our family so many opportunities.
“But can you imagine being two young people, coming to a strange country where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone? They were the most amazing people.”
Doris, her older sister Marion and younger brother Peter lived a childhood full of chickens and fruit trees in the backyard, home-made salamis, bottles full of preserved fruit in the cupboard and mouth-watering, traditional, home-cooked meals.
“We didn’t own a lot but what we lacked in that way was made up for in just pure love,” she says.
Like many migrant families, their national tongue was spoken at home, although Doris’s father, who ran a shoe repair and leather shop in Geelong for 25 years, became fluent in the many languages of the community.
“The people next door were Czechs, across the road were Poles, down the street were Hungarians and Russians, and we were German. There was every conceivable nationality and my father, who had no schooling beyond primary school, would speak Russian with the Russians, Polish with the Poles, Czech with the Czechs.
“It was an amazing gift and meant that as I grew up, I found learning new languages easy.”
Doris’s father passed away about 10 years ago but her 91-year-old mother still lives in a nursing home in Geelong and continues to speak to Doris and her siblings in German, while they respond in English.
Determined to make something of herself, the young Doris became an over-achiever.
“If I didn’t get an A – 95% or 100% – I considered I didn’t do well,” she says.
“I was on the debating team, did public speaking, the school choir and I was always getting awards for citizenship and things like that. Your classic over-achiever.
“And, yes, we were bullied as kids. Despite the fact there was a large migrant population in Geelong, we were bullied because we were different.
“I remember going to school and having Vienna bread sandwiches with salami and cheese while the Aussie kids had hundreds and thousands on their sandwiches.
“So we were called ‘wogs’ but I vowed and declared I wouldn’t let myself be called a wog forever and set myself to learn English and excel at everything I did.
“I didn’t want to struggle, like my parents had to.”
But as is so often the case, the attitude that set Doris up to soar high when she achieved also set her up to crash badly when she felt she failed.
For her and her husband Peter, that crash came on June 17, 1980.
Her life was changed forever that night after she discovered Claire’s lifeless body in her cot and then could only watch as Peter desperately performed CPR, sobbing as he begged their baby girl to start breathing again.
“That night, when my daughter died, was the first time in my life I felt I had failed at something,” Doris says.
“It was a shocking blow to me because I truly did not know what failure was like and I wasn’t prepared for it.
“So when Claire died it was like someone had messed with my future. I had a plan and it didn’t involve my daughter dying. I just couldn’t cope with it and, in my mind, I had failed.
“One of the unwritten ground rules of being a parent is that you are responsible for your children’s safety and wellbeing and I had broken that rule.
“I couldn’t get my head around how we could be watching TV in one part of the house while she was dying in another. How could we let that happen?”
Forty years later, Doris still gets emotional when she talks about Claire’s death.
“I used to wonder how long it would take me to get over it – how long until I stopped thinking about Claire all day, every day.
“It took me at least five years to emerge from that cloud of grief. Thousands of times I asked myself ‘why?’ – was there something I could have done differently?
“And I was worried what people would think. Would they think I had failed – that I was a bad parent?
“I’ve since learned that you don’t get over that sort of grief – you learn to incorporate it into your new way of living.
“I believe that when someone close to you dies, it carries a unique burden. Cot death is not unique, but our unique burden was to never know why our daughter died.”
Compounding Doris’s pain was a feeling that she hadn’t been allowed to say goodbye properly during the funeral process.
“I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get to pick her up and hold her one last time, from the moment we found her in her cot.
“l didn’t get to do it when ambulance took her away and when I asked the funeral director if I could hold her one last time, he said ‘no, we don’t do that’.
“I didn’t argue with him because I was too overcome with grief and shock but I hated myself for years afterwards for not standing up for myself and saying ‘but she is my baby and I want to pick her up’.”
Three years after Claire’s death, Doris met a funeral director and told him how she felt, in no uncertain terms.
She pulled no punches in letting him know she thought funerals directors knew little about grief – parents’ grief in particular – and didn’t know anything about holding funerals that were a meaningful way of saying goodbye.
To his credit, he invited Doris to share her views at a conference of funeral directors and two years later, in 1984, offered her a job.
Since that day she has not only worked as a funeral director, but also devoted her life to training others in the industry on how they can do their jobs with compassion, respect and empathy.
“A mentor in the funeral industry once told me that what happens in the first five days after a death can impact on that family for the next five years,” Doris explains.
“So you make sure what you do in those first five days helps them in the first five years.
“I have never forgotten that to this day. And I have never forgotten what it’s like to be sitting on the other side of the desk – to be the grieving parent or family member.”
Doris has written seven books and countless articles and columns to help people deal with grief and since 1992 has worked for national funeral brand InvoCare, both as a funeral director, Queensland general manager and now as a trainer based at Nerang.
Six years ago she created the My Grief Assist website for InvoCare – the first website of its type in Australia which offers a range of information on loss and grief.
Her first book, published in 1990, was aimed at helping grieving teenagers and their families.
Others have covered explaining death to children, what to say to someone who is grieving, a common sense guide for grieving people and even what to do when pets die.
But Doris has never written about the time of Claire’s death in any of her books, other than referring to it as an example or explanation of her advice.
“I’ve tried and failed a few times because the story is too big – I don’t think I have the language to give credit to the pain,” she says.
“There are no words to describe how painful it has been. I’m not a good enough writer to capture how bad those early years were.
“I have learnt that when Claire died, I had no knowledge of grief and no skills to deal with it.
“It was my first curve ball in life and I had not learnt the skills needed to cope with it.
“I also had nothing to help my older daughter Kate (who was three at the time) cope with her sister’s death.
“I also had to learn how to feel feelings and not be ashamed by what I was feeling.
“It’s a long, hard road and since those dark days I have seen many people start a journey that I know so well.
“Learning how to grieve is tough but not knowing how to do it is tougher.”