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Using life lessons to help others heal

Using life lessons to help others heal

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Darcy Thiel has been through personal wars. She got married two weeks after she landed her bachelor’s degree, and was divorced before she got her master’s.

She started school with plans to become a missionary, and ended up becoming a mental health counselor.

She met and married the man of her dreams in 2001, spent years helping to make a blended family work, and watched in despair, desperation and amazement as her husband died from cancer in October 2010. Tim Colvin, an engineer, was 48.

Thiel, 46, has run a counseling business out of her West Seneca homestead since 2003. Inspirational notes dot her office, which is joined to her garage. The words “dream,” “imagine” and “believe” call out from the wall near the entrance. “Wizard of Oz” memorabilia is among the knickknacks in her work space.

“I learned in a workshop how to use it in therapy,” she said of the “Oz” collection during a recent interview. “As the story goes, ‘If I only had this.’ In the end, they found out they had what they needed all along.”

Thiel has self-published a new book, “Bitter and Sweet: A Family’s Journey with Cancer,” available at and, and soon in several local bookstores. She officially will launch the book from 1 to 3 p.m. next Saturday during a free public gathering at Hospice Buffalo, 225 Como Park Blvd., Cheektowaga. She also has a blog,, and a website,

Thiel hired David Bittner, a student at James Madison University’s School of Media Arts and Design in Virginia, to create the book trailer from Thiel’s home videos, which can be viewed on YouTube.

A Lockport native, she graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College in Chicago before returning to Western New York in 1995. Mother to a 10-year-old son, David, and stepmom to three adult children, she focuses on relationship counseling, and brings her life lessons to her work. Those who stop in to talk often find in her a kindred spirit.

Q. What made you decide to get into the field?

A. I think I was always the go-to person with my friends. It’s kind of what motivated me. I’m a relatable person, an intense person emotionally.

Q. What concerns and conditions are the most common?

A. Relationships not going well. They’re single people dating and finding that to be a nightmare. Married people finding it difficult. Parenting stuff. Blended family stuff. Then there’s also the things like anxiety and depression. I see a lot of that.

Q. What is the most practical advice you can give a couple going through a divorce?

A. I’m a person who believes all my life experiences, they can help you learn and grow. The divorce helped me relate to my clients. And then I met Tim, and he had three children, so I stepped into a step-parenting situation, which is also a common occurrence in our society, dealing with family issues, so we had a lot of adjusting to do with forming a blended a family. Tim had custody of all three kids. We had our ups and downs and pushes and pulls with that. Then I got pregnant with my son and think he was a big unifying factor for all of us.

I would say it was baptism by fire. Step-parenting is tough, but then starting out parenting teenagers. … I probably tried too hard sometimes, but I really tried to love them as much as I can, not replace their mother but love them as much as I could. They had been with a single dad for five years, so it was a lot of adjusting. The things I did well, the things I did not do so well, are all part of what helps me help other people.

Q. As for the ex?

A. One really key thing is the biological parent [you’re dating] has to completely be on board. They set the tone for everything. And my philosphy is kind of cliche, but my philosophy is kill them with kindness. Be the bigger person, always. … In the end it pays off, but sometimes it takes years.

Q. You’ve written a new book, “Bitter and Sweet, A Family’s Journey with Cancer.” It’s about how you and your husband went through a challenging 5½ months after Tim was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer. It started with pain in his side and an unsuccessful surgery to remove his gallbladder. The next surgery followed at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

A. We fully expected the surgeon to operate, and the surgeon said he couldn’t operate, we were well past that. Tim was Stage IV and he had five to seven months left. It was the most bizarre, nonsensical thing, because he really felt fine, pretty much.… And from there, it was a process of trying to balance these paradoxical ideas of how do you fight, give it everything you’ve got, refuse to accept what it is, and accept what’s happening to you and prepare for that? How do you do that? How do you handle both? How do we be realistic and yet fight?

It was like playing the lottery. You go to the store and buy a lottery ticket because you hope you’re going to win, but you know what the chances are. The odds are you’re not going to win, so you don’t go out and rack up all your credit cards and mortgage your house because you’re going to win the lottery.

For us, that’s what it kind of felt like. We were doing our best and were in the game but we had to understand the reality of the odds.

It’s such a roller coaster. People who have been through it understand that. They know it’s a life of waiting for test results, being told one thing and finding out it’s another, thinking chemo’s working and finding out it’s not. You’ve got this much time and that much time. You’re constantly having to absorb new information and respond to it.

Q. You say there were landmark times of adjustment.

A. In August, we got his CAT scan results back and were expecting the chemo was working and we found out it wasn’t. The cancer had spread everywhere and Tim immediately slipped into a depression and almost died that weekend. Then he rallied and that was when we switched to palliative care. And then again it was very confusing because he was on steroids and he worked up until two weeks before he died. The day he went to hospice was a really tough day. He was pacing and talking to the hospice nurse and asking her, ‘Why am I bloated,’ and she would say, ‘This is part of the process.’ And he would say, ‘OK, what do we do about that, and she would say, ‘We can’t do anything about that.’ And then he went through all his symptoms like that and just said, ‘I’m dying, aren’t I?’

We had to come to grips with that.

Q. You published a website at the time which became the basis for your book. It allowed both you and Tim to journal your daily experiences. What was the hardest thing to juggle during this period?

A. We had tons and tons of help and resources, and because we made the decision to be public with it, it was monumentally helpful. All we had to do was ask and people just came and helped.

You had to be flexible. You had to let things go. We had amazing people in our lives and it was still hard. I almost felt bad because we had so much help, it shouldn’t be hard. And Tim was the one who would say, ‘Darc, it’s still a nightmare.’

I just kept doing what needed to be done. You have to learn how to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of everyone else, so how do I do that? And I had an 8-year-old who was trying to cope and figure out what was happening…

Probably the hardest thing was recognizing our limitations. I know what kind of mother I can be, but I couldn’t be that kind of mother and take care of a dying spouse. I know what kind of a spouse I could be, but I couldn’t do that and still take care of my son, and see clients and work. I don’t have the kind of job where I can say, ‘I’ll just take a leave of absence for awhile, so I’ve really gotta work because I’m going to be responsible, so how do I do that? Working was really hard and my clients struggled with that, but I loved coming in here and closing the door, feeling that I was a little more competent and could make a difference. It really was my sanity up here, but there were times when I or somebody else would have to meet my clients at the door and say, ‘I’ve gotta go to Roswell.’

It was hard not being everything I felt like I could be. ... Anything I could do that someone else could do, I let them. All our meals, I didn’t cook. I gave our grocery list to someone who would go over and do all of our grocery shopping for us. People drove David for us, they took him places for us. People cleaned our house.

People did things for us and we had to let them. We had to learn how to ask and we had to let them so I could be Tim’s advocate.

They shifted the Bible study to our house so that I didn’t have to go to the church. Anything that people could do, they did and we just got through it. … It really was impossible to truly lose heart with everyone around us. You had to keep going...

There are times now, it’s been 2½ years, where I still wake up and think, ‘I’m still tired.’

Q. How did you explain what was going on to your children?

A. We gave them as much information as they wanted, as much detail as they wanted.

Hospice sent in couselors to the house, I had a counselor that came to the house, we had a chaplain that came to the house. …There came a point where we had to say [to David], ‘This is the kind of cancer where daddy’s not going to get better’...

We just lived and every once in awhile I’d have a meltdown and cry for two hours. Then I’d get up and say, ‘OK, what’s on the to do list today? and we’d just do it. ... We’re going to the cemetery today. Tim’s picking out a cemetery plot, and then I’d say, ‘What the hell is that? Who has that on their to do list?’ But we did. We went and picked out a plot and he designed his headstone. He wrote cards for David’s birthday until David is 18. There were lots more things he wanted to do that he just got too sick to do. He wanted to write letters to all his kids. He didn’t get to that. He wanted to do all his picture boards, but he didn’t get to that.

Q. What were some of the most poignant posts on the website?

A. I talked about his bucket list … to redo the pool. We were supposed to do it over three years, finance it, When he got sick, he said, ‘Can we screw the financing and just do it?’ I said, ‘All right, but come on, don’t you want to go to Africa or should we try to go to Australia?’ He said, ‘Nope.’

We had all of these workers here working [on upgrading the pool]. There was probably eight or nine guys, and so we got the concrete poured out here and Tim and David and I put our handprints in it. And all the guys were standing around watching and Tim was kneeling down at his handprint, and he looked up at me and he said, ‘So, if you ever want to hold my hand you can just come and put your hand here. All the guys had to walk away, They were all crying…

And that’s why the book is bitter and sweet. It truly was the best five months of our life together. It was the most god awful five months but it was the best.

Q. How are you and your children adjusting?

A. Book Two is going to be about that. I think that were doing OK. I think this book has been incredible healing for me. David is great. My 29-year-old stepson, Tim Jr., still lives with us and I think he is the key to David’s life. They are inseperable.

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