Photo credit: Mark & Deanna Photography, who did a pro bono photo session for the Gaffneys when Steve started hospice Credit: Mark & Deanna Photography
Photo credit: Mark & Deanna Photography, who did a pro bono photo session for the Gaffneys when Steve started hospice
Photo credit: Mark & Deanna Photography, who did a pro bono photo session for the Gaffneys when Steve started hospice Credit: Mark & Deanna Photography

When our daughter was a little over four months old, my husband Steve was laid off from his job. The word of his lay off came the same week we learned his brain tumor was growing again, and his neuro-oncology team recommended starting brain radiation immediately.

Steve secured another position relatively quickly, but despite his determination to continue working, radiation therapy, tumor progression, and other treatment side effects would ultimately leave him disabled. In the meantime, I returned to school, hopeful that I would be better able to support our family down the road.

Our daily life grew more difficult – sometimes in small increments and sometimes in great torrents that felt impossible to overcome. At the same time, one by one and in great waves, friends and community organizations came out of the woodwork and helped patch the holes in our life.

We pieced together a network of support and somehow made it work.

Steve’s colleagues donated hundreds of hours to a catastrophic leave bank when he was no longer able to work. They had done the same thing for him when he had his first brain surgery shortly after his diagnosis at the age of 27.

The Kennebec Valley YMCA, where our daughter attended daycare and preschool for five and a half years, provided us with scholarships and the security of knowing our daughter was loved and supported in a safe and caring place.

Our friends helped watch our daughter, cooked meals, and organized fundraisers, among countless other efforts.

We received fuel and food assistance during the particularly difficult years.

When Steve became homebound, Hospice Volunteers of the Waterville Area (HVWA) provided a volunteer for an hour once a week.

After Steve’s death, our daughter attended MaineGeneral’s Healing Hearts program for grieving children, I attended a bereavement group through HVWA, and we both attended HVWA’s Camp Ray of Hope, a camp held in central Maine each fall for grieving families and individuals from across the state.

Steve’s illness and death comprised some of the most difficult days of my life, but our family’s experience opened a lot of doors for talking with my daughter about difficult subjects.

I’m exceedingly grateful that my daughter was too young to be aware of the hardship that we faced as a family, but I also want her to know how remarkably fortunate we were: that we did not end up bankrupt; that there was a safety net when we needed it most; and that our friends and community stepped up to offer their help.

Volunteering has always been an important part of my life, from being a member of a community service club in high school and tutoring adult literacy in college, to the multiple AmeriCorps terms I served in my twenties, and it is now even more vital to me to continue volunteering and for my daughter to see that it is simply part of what we do as a family. We don’t have a lot of extra time or money, but we can still make a difference.

As my daughter gets older, we talk more and more about helping others and about how we can give back, both to the organizations and people that helped us along the way, as well as to those less fortunate than our family.

We donate my daughter’s gently used toys to Goodwill or our local homeless shelter, pick up toiletry items to donate to our local food pantry a couple times a year, and whenever our local YMCA or United Way needs someone to speak about community impact, I always say “yes” wholeheartedly. I donate blood as often as I can, and I have coordinated two free writing workshops to help those working through their own grief.

Though these are small gestures, I know that sometimes the small things can make all the difference in the world. I hope and believe that each of these actions makes a positive difference in someone else’s life. I also hope that my daughter grows up to both appreciate support offered in a time of need, and in turn to be able to offer her support to others when they need it most.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer and brain injury advocate. She lives in Vassalboro with her daughter. You can find her work at