UI student talks life after losing mother to breast cancer

Nicole’s mother, Darcie Crifase, at age 21, the same age as Nicole is now.

Nicole Crifase remembers sitting in the bathtub, clutching her knees and trying to comprehend what had just happened. It was March 27, 2005, and her mother, Darcie Crifase, had just lost her battle against breast cancer. To the senior in LAS, life without her mother seemed completely unfathomable. 

With this coming spring marking the 10th anniversary of her mother’s death, Nicole said she views this year as a turning point in her grieving process. 

“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 38. About a year later, she went into remission. But a few months following, the cancer had come back full force and she died only a few months after that,” Nicole said. “When she passed, I remember being so afraid and confused as to what was happening. I kept trying to rewind time and go back to 5 minutes earlier, when she was still alive.”

Just 12 years old at the time of her mother’s passing, Nicole said no one could forget her mother’s “caring and brave spirit, willingness to help others, and her sassy side.” 

“Everyone loved my mom and when I say everyone, I actually mean everyone.” Nicole said. “The entire town and the towns over showed up to her wake. It was like this because my mom (was a nurse) and had the biggest heart (for helping people) of anyone I know.”

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Nicole said her father, Nicholas Crifase, remembers his wife in a similar light. 

“I remember her infectious personality. She had a gift for making the mundane so much more enjoyable,” he said. “She was sassy; I never knew what she might say next. And her smile — it always warmed my heart.” 

Nicole said her favorite stories about her mom include the ones of her nursing others back to health — both at her work as a neonatal nurse and in the community — and even the time she created a “mini hospital” for Nicole and her sister’s pet hamsters. 

“My mom worked with premature babies and she used to bring me along to home health visits,” Nicole said. “At one point, she was working with a family who didn’t speak English very well so rather than asking for an interpreter or giving the family to a different nurse, she decided to teach herself Spanish.”

Nicole remembers very little during the months leading up to and following her mother’s death. She said it was as if her mind went numb for an entire year. The day of her mother’s passing was just one day after Nicole’s birthday, which also happened to be Easter Sunday of that year. 

“Everyone has a different experience following the death of a loved one,” Nicole said. “I didn’t truly start to realize how permanent it was until months later. You can survive without seeing your family and your loved ones for a week, a month, even a couple months but eventually you get to that point where it has been too long and the truth of the matter sets in.”  

Initially, Nicole said she and her sister, Cassie Crifase, 20, were living in denial about their mother’s passing. They didn’t talk about their mother, they didn’t want to go to therapy and they “just wanted to ignore the pain.” This, Nicole said, was mainly because of how young they were (Nicole was 12 and Cassie was 10) and their inability to understand the magnitude of the situation. 

“To be honest, this whole time period is very hazy for me,” Cassie said. “I don’t remember too many emotions. I don’t remember crying. Nicole picked up a maternal responsibility as a coping mechanism and our family has grown close ever since.”

Today, Nicole copes with her loss by saving meaningful quotes; her favorite being, “Dear Mom, Your life made me strong. Your passing made me stronger.”

“The quotes remind me to appreciate the time I got to spend with my mom because I was lucky to have spent 12 fun, inspiring, memorable years with her,” she said.

On harder days, Nicole said talking about her mother helps the most. Whether that be showing photos to friends, reminiscing by herself or listening to stories from her dad or sister, Nicole said that talking about her mom is the best way to keep her memory fresh and alive. 

“The hard part came when I got to college,” Nicole said. “At U of I, no one knew my history. So, I had to try and make it a point to tell my new friends that my mom passed away. Every time someone asked about my mom, it was an opportunity to explain how incredible of a woman she was.”

Nicole’s father quit his job following his wife’s death to return to school to become a teacher and have the same hours as his daughters. As a newly single parent, he had to adopt a more maternal parenting style. 

“Her cancer forced me to change my life dramatically. It forced me to become a mom and a better dad. It forced me to decide what our legacy would be as a family, which made me realize that I did not want others to raise my children for me. … Her cancer made me realize that life isn’t a dress rehearsal; if you don’t live for the moment, the moment will pass you by.”

While Nicole said there have been many different stages of grieving, she said she considers her impending graduation without her mother by her side and the 10-year anniversary of her mother’s passing as new milestones she will have to face. Graduating in May with a degree in Spanish and planning to work for a publishing company or as a translator after, Nicole said her mother instilled in her a sense of responsibility that inspires her to do well.

“Nothing could stop my mom and even though cancer ended her life, I promise that it didn’t stop her voice from living on in the minds, thoughts and opinions of all the people that she knew,” Nicole said. “There’s a quote by a modern artist named Robert Montgomery that goes, ‘The people you love become ghosts inside of you and like this you keep them alive.’ I truly believe this and I think that my mom lives on through my dad, my siblings, her friends, our family and me.”

Anna can be reached at [email protected].