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In a new book, an oncology therapist brings hope and insight to sickness and loss

Kelly Grosklags
Kelly Grosklags

Her first book is no tome, and Kelly Grosklags is happy with that.

“It’s not huge,” Grosklags said of the book, a support resource for people living with the impact of terminal and chronic cancer. “It’s supposed to be easy to carry around with you. It is meant to fit into a purse or a backpack so you can bring it to chemo or on an airplane. That was intentional.”

While Grosklags’ book may be moderately sized, its content is anything but unassuming. Titled “A Comforted Heart: An Oncology Psychotherapist’s Perspective on Finding Meaning and Hope During Illness and Loss,” the self-published work blends advice, wisdom and hope gleaned from Grosklags’ 25-year career as an oncology psychotherapist. It will be released Dec. 11.

“The intention of the book is to bring solace and information to people going through these experiences so that they don’t feel alone,” she said. “My hope is that when people read this book, whatever they are going through they will be able to find something meaningful, something that helps make their load feel a little lighter.”

I first spoke to Grosklags a few months ago when I wrote about her work treating people undergoing cancer treatment for PTSD.  Grosklags also talked about how she was working on a book, so when I heard it was about to come out, I gave her a call.

Grosklags has personal understanding of the importance of emotional support during traumatic times. After her mother died of a heart attack when she was just 11 years old, Grosklags dedicated her life to supporting people and their families though illness, healing and, sometimes, death. She earned a degree in social work and became a therapist who focused on working with people undergoing cancer treatment. She is one of only a few such professionals in the state.

For years, people have asked Grosklags when she was going to write a book about her work. Conversations with Kelly, the popular public forum that she hosts for patients, survivors, family, friends and caregivers to learn and talk about current issues in disease and wellness, has provided further food for thought — and more encouragement from participants.

“People keep saying I should do this, and I’ve always felt like this book is living inside of me,” Grosklags said. This year, she decided to bite the bullet and finally get her ideas down on paper.  Now that the book is about to be set off into the world, she’s feeling a little nervous.

“It is a surreal feeling to finally be finishing this project,” Grosklags told me. “It is exciting to put a book out there, but it also feels vulnerable. There is stuff about my life in the book, stuff that feels private, but I think it’s important to get it out and share it with others. I’m hoping that when people read this book their heart will be comforted.”  

Designed for the audience

More than most, Grosklags understands “A Comforted Heart’s” intended audience. These are people she sees nearly every day, and she wrote the book with their unique needs in mind.

“One thing I like about the book is you don’t have to open it in the front and read to the back,” Grosklags said. “That’s not how healing goes. It’s something that happens in stops and starts. People who are sick or grieving have a hard time reading from front to back because that requires stamina and focus, and during those times that is something many people lack.”

“A Comforted Heart,” Grosklags said, is “a metaphor for healing. You can open it up wherever you are and it will make sense to you then. Sometimes you might need to read it backward and sometimes you can read it forward. No matter how you approach this book, you will still get something out of it.”

The stories in the book are all about real people Grosklags has encountered, in her psychotherapy practice and through her speaking engagements. All of the names have been changed to protect sources, though not every person included wanted anonymity.

“Some families begged me to use real names,” Grosklags said. “Their loved ones have died and they wanted them to be represented, to be remembered for the good things they brought to the world. But unfortunately I couldn’t honor that request. I thought it was best to change all names across the board.”

For Grosklags, part of the thrill of finally getting the book out in the world is the opportunity to share ideas that she’s been developing for most of her adult life. She’s packed a quarter-century’s worth of experience and knowledge into its pages, beginning with the cover image — a labyrinth.

“I believe that there are so many paths that a person can take to get to get to same place,” she said. “That’s how a labyrinth works, so I wanted that kind of image on the cover.” Like the cover image, she continued, “There is so much intention in this book: I hope people get it. I want it to be a book that provides healing and solace when people need it most.” 

Hopeful message

It may be hard to imagine that a book focused on illness and the dying process can feel hopeful, but Grosklags begs to differ.

“This book is kind of heavy on grief,” she admitted, “but it’s not a sad book. It is uplifting and inspirational. It’s a place where people can come to find support and share hope.”

Going through cancer treatment — or watching someone you love suffer and struggle — can be an isolating experience. People don’t always want to acknowledge sickness or death, and those who are in its midst can feel like they have no one to turn to for real support.

That real sense of isolation is in part why Conversations With Kelly has become so popular. People are hungry for ways to share their cancer journeys, Grosklags said: These public gatherings are one way to come together in community around a topic that affects so many. 

Grosklags plans to sell her book at Conversations With Kelly events, and at other speaking engagements. She thinks it will be a way that people can continue these important conversations at their own pace, a pace that matches their own experience.

“I want people to not feel alone or isolated when they are going through these experiences,” she said. “I want them to feel that no matter how dark the times are there is still hope or there will still be a plan.”

For people with a terminal illness, developing a plan — for end-of-life treatment, or palliative care or making the most of the time that is left — is essential. But too often people are so focused on an illusive cure that they forget to think about what comes next. “A Comforted Heart” has a chapter devoted to making such plans. Grosklags believes it is one the book’s most hopeful chapters.

“There is a whole section about the difference between curing and healing. Of course, people want their cancer cured, but a cure is not always an option for everyone. Even without a cure, there is a lot of healing — and living — that can happen. That old phrase, ‘There is nothing more we can do for you’ is outdated, old and untrue.”

With the help of stories gleaned from several of her patients, Gosklags makes that point, creating a community of people who live their lives to the fullest despite illness and share their perspectives on how to make that happen for everyone. 

“My hope is that somewhere in this book there will be a phrase or a word or a story that can lift readers up and can help them see that they are not alone in their journey,” Grosklags said. “That’s the main thing I wanted to come from this book. If I achieve that, I will feel like I have made a difference.”

The public is invited to a book reading and launch party for “A Comforted Heart: An Oncology Psychotherapist’s Perspective on Finding Meaning and Hope During Illness and Loss” on Dec. 14 from 6-7:30 p.m. at Eat My Words Bookstore, 214 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis. 

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