There were tears when Barbara Bardak’s three young children first started watching the video she’d made for them about her life and what she wanted for theirs. It wasn’t long, though, before they were nudging and kidding each other in affection for the mother they’d lost to breast cancer five months earlier at age 43.
“It was such a beautiful moment,” said Nora Bardak, Barbara’s mother-in-law and caregiver for the children—10, 11 and 14—in Rocky Point, N.Y. “What a gift this was, and it couldn’t have been easy for her—she had to think, ‘maybe I’m dying,’” even though she looked healthy on the tape made six weeks before she died in July.
The idea that some families might be deprived of enriching stories, advice and sentiments because a parent has a life-threatening illness inspired breast cancer survivor Carri Rubinstein to start Thru My Eyes, a New York nonprofit that has produced more than 60 legacy videos in about three years.
There’s nothing quite like hearing and watching a loved one talk about his or her life, especially after death, Rubinstein said. And to the person making the video, it’s a way to be a part of children’s milestones — prom, graduation, job interviews, falling in love.
“They know what they want to say to their children,” she said. “And they’re giving their children the gift of a lifetime. They can know what their parent looked like, what she sounded like, and get answers to some things that they might not be able to get after she passed.”
Jennifer Trypaluk, 46, who lives on Long Island, made a video last fall that she’s kept secret from her 15-year-old son. He’s seen her endure surgery and treatment for breast cancer that metastasized to her liver, but she had things she wanted to say to him and to her husband and wanted to do it while the disease was at bay, for how long she doesn’t know.
“There’s a monumental difference between looking at photos and hearing a voice,” said Trypaluk, an office manager for an accounting firm. “I wanted my last words to be what I wouldn’t be there to say every day, the nagging mom stuff. You want your family to know you love them, that you’ve always loved them.”
While Rubinstein has found some people hesitant to make a video because it means confronting the reality of their illness, mental health professionals are part of the process.
“I know it’s therapeutic. We’re encouraging them to speak about things that are important. When they’re finished, they’ll look at us and say, ‘I’m so glad I did this.’ It gives them peace of mind,” she said.
Thru My Eyes makes the videos free to those who meet the criteria of having a life-threatening illness and children under age 21 or are the sole caregiver of young children. Interviews are done in person or via Skype. Another nonprofit, Memories Live, also offers free videos to those in the New York area without the age restriction on children. Both Kerry Glass, a former art therapist who shoots and edits the Memories Live videos, and Rubinstein solicit donations and grants and hold fundraisers to pay for the service and spare families additional expense and stress. They do not know of other organizations providing similar services.
Glass asks questions that guide a person through the stages of life, talking about everything from college to favorite travel destinations and hobbies.
“You want the children to be able to see parts of themselves in their mom or dad,” she said.
Those being videotaped sometimes have guilt over their illnesses, she said, “but it’s incredibly cathartic for them to be leaving something for their family.”
Videos from both organizations can go beyond the initial taping. Glass accepts up to 50 photos, which she puts together in a slide show and will set to a person’s favorite song. Rubinstein lends a camera that can be used for additional thoughts or to capture everyday moments, such as baths or bedtime. These are woven into the recording at appropriate intervals by the group’s professional videographer.
The videos are “very, very powerful, much more than a photo album,” said Maureen Empfield, a psychiatrist in private practice who has helped Thru My Eyes with some interviews. For the patient, “it sums up the central pieces of your life, these are the things that made me who I am.”
Then the children, she said, will someday realize, “They were dying. They were trying to save their lives, but they stopped and tried to get the strength to do this for me so I’d have this.”
Trypaluk has put her video in a box of treasures for her son with instructions to her husband and sister that they all watch it when the time is right.
“I feel I’ve left a little piece of me behind for him and, God willing, he’ll even look at it with his children,” she said.