Kelli Upshur has had two years of firsts. There’s, of course, the initial year of firsts: her first birthday party, first Christmas day and first shopping trips with her mom. Like all of us, Upshur can’t remember these firsts.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Malinna's top priority in 2016 was getting healthy enough to attend her daughter Kelli's wedding in Florida.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Malinna’s top priority in 2016 was getting healthy enough to attend her daughter Kelli’s wedding in Florida.
Photo courtesy: Parker Young (http://parkeryoung.net/)/@parkeryoung)

But, the second year of firsts – that’s something she said she’ll never forget.

Doctors diagnosed Upshur’s mom, Malinna, with pancreatic cancer in January of 2016. Pancreatic cancer claimed 56-year-old Malinna’s life on New Year’s Eve of that same year.

For Upshur, that meant 2017 was a year of firsts without her best friend and mother.

“Before she died, my mom said she wanted us to think about the upcoming year,” explained Upshur. “My mom said 2016 was a year with cancer and that 2017 would be the year without it.”

Because of Malinna’s love for the sea, the family decided to memorialize the mother of four with a living legacy. They took her ashes to Eternal Reefs, which made a coral reef out of Malinna’s ashes and environmentally-safe cast concrete. They then lowered the artificial reef formation into the Gulf of Mexico where it serves a permanent marine habitat for fish and other forms of sea life.

The family before mom, Malinna, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The family before mom, Malinna, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“She always said ‘You came from the ocean and you will return to the ocean,’” Upshur said of her mother. “We were snowbirds, spending many vacations in Sarasota, Fla. My mom always wanted to have a house there. Well, Eternal Reefs is located there, and now, so is my mom. Her memorial on the sea floor provides a place for ocean animals and plants to live out their lives.”

While Upshur was raised in Pittsburgh, Pa. and spent time living in Los Angeles, she now resides in Tampa near her mom’s final resting place.

“My mom loved the beach, it gave her life. That is why she’s buried in the ocean,” said Upshur.

While she’s still grieving, Upshur said a variety of techniques helped her even in the darkest of moments.

Kelli Upshur, who was the family's first-born, said her mom was always her best friend.

Kelli Upshur, who was the family’s first-born, said her mom was always her best friend.

  1. Continue to remember your loved one
    For Upshur, 2017 marked the first Mother’s Day without her mom. “I still got her a Mother’s Day card,” she said. “I wrote her a note and I put it away. I do little things like that to celebrate her and keep her memory alive.”
  2. Seek a grief counselor or support group
    “My group helped me navigate the grieving process,” Upshur said. “I learned how to process the pain so I could start talking about my mom again and remembering the time I had with her.”
  3. Share your stories and ask others to do the same
    “I tell stories about her and I like hearing stories from other people,” she said. “I don’t want these things to disappear, I don’t want to forget, so I tell stories and listen to stories and that keeps her alive.”
  4. Take your time with grieving
    “Grieving takes a long time,” Upshur said. “I will grieve my entire life. It’s not always crying, sometimes you feel happy when you go through positive, optimistic stories. Then the next moment you may be crying. Feel all those feelings. Also remember, not everyone grieves the same way. You may cry, but other family members may shutdown emotionally. Everyone handles this kind of thing differently.”

The family placed Malinna's living reef memorial in the ocean on the one-year anniversary of Kelli's wedding.
The family placed Malinna’s living reef memorial in the ocean on the one-year anniversary of Kelli’s wedding.
Photo courtesy: Parker Young (http://parkeryoung.net/)/@parkeryoung)

For resources and information to help patients and caregivers cope with all aspects of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and to access our Survivor and Caregiver network, contact Patient Central.