After Katherine Dolphin Griffin’s father Joe was diagnosed with cancer, she would call him first thing every morning at 7.50am.
“I’d be like, ‘Morning, how are things?’ and he’d be like, ‘Ugh, you woke me again with your panicking,’” she recalls of her father’s good-natured, daily grumble to soothe- or at least smooth- her concerns.
Much later, however, when Joe was in Marymount Hospice after his cancer returned for a fifth and final time, Katherine made a discovery.
“He had his phone in his pyjama pocket all the time, and the alarm went off at 11 minutes to eight one morning and I was like, ‘Are you frigging kidding me?!’” she smiles.
“For weeks [after he died] I kept that phone on for 11 minutes to eight because he was ready for that call every morning, but loved to blame me, not to have me panicking. He was remarkable.”
It’s just a little story; but it says a lot about the bond between this daughter and her father. Because while Katherine has overcome many obstacles in her life- from having to run the family home at just 16 to being diagnosed with cancer herself at 37- it has been learning to live with the loss of her father that has been her greatest challenge; and teacher.
And she is now sharing these lessons in her book, Hope To Cope, with a fundraising target of €100,000 by World Cancer Day, 4 February 2023: the sixth anniversary of her father’s death.
A special bond
Katherine- a primary school teacher- lives just outside Midleton, Co Cork with her husband Maurice and their teenage children, Mia and Colin.
Next door is her father’s house, where she grew up, an only daughter with four brothers. Since he died, she has been unable to step inside the door. “I’ve looked in the window and that’s it,” she says, “but I’ll get there.”
She tells Irish Country Living that it means a lot to be featured in this paper. Her father, Joe Dolphin, studied agricultural science in Warrenstown and was a district superintendent with the Department of Agriculture in Hibernian House, so “The Journal” was brought home “every week without fail”.
As the only daughter, Katherine was always a “daddy’s girl”, but in her book she explains how she had to grow up almost overnight at 16 when her mother left the family home. It would be several years before they would re-connect, when Katherine tracked her mother down to invite her to her wedding.
Describing her as a “wonderful person”, Katherine explains that while she did not understand it as a teenager, she sees now that her mother was not giving up on the family when she left; rather she was “giving up being unhappy”.
they ate stew and brown bread for dinner “every day for literally a year” because they were the only two recipes she knew
“When I look now being a mum and heading into menopause myself, I realise how it affected her,” she says.
“I suppose she didn’t have the same support network and my father- while I adored the ground he walked upon- he wasn’t a family man, he was a working man. You know that generation of the 80s: dad goes out to work, mom makes the dinner at one o’clock…”
Nonetheless, it did mean that Katherine was thrust into the role of running the house with a teenage skillset; she tells a story about how they ate stew and brown bread for dinner “every day for literally a year” because they were the only two recipes she knew.
Living with loss
But the experience also made her a “problem-solver”, which stood to her in later life, as she rose up the corporate ladder before leaving to retrain as a primary school teacher in her 30s; even though it meant re-sitting the Leaving Cert Irish exam to gain entry to the post-grad training course.
Unfortunately, she would have to call on these skills time after time in more difficult circumstances, such as when her father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma in 2008 when Katherine was six months pregnant with her second child.
She describes how her “heart and her bump dropped” with the news.
“I just looked at him and it was the first time in my life that I really saw my dad vulnerable and that hurt because he was always so capable,” she says, becoming visibly emotional at the memory.
While Joe went on to make a recovery after that first diagnosis, he would be re-diagnosed with cancer another four times.
While caring for her dad, however, Katherine was also diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2012, after a child in her class commented that her voice sounded funny. Two tumours were discovered, leading to a total thyroidectomy, followed by radioactive iodine treatment in isolation under the nuclear medicine dept of CUH for one week, with five further weeks isolating from her family at home.
“The dog used to brush past me; that dog was definitely radioactive half the time,” she smiles.
I couldn’t go out to the clothes line because I’d miss his silhouette in the window
It’s clear from reading the book and from speaking with Katherine, however, that the greatest challenge was learning to live with the loss of her father, who died on 4 February 2017.
“I couldn’t go out to the clothes line because I’d miss his silhouette in the window,” she says.
“When he died, I just couldn’t explain it to people. They were like, ‘Oh sorry to hear about your dad’, and I was like, ‘But do you know he was everything to me?’”
It was only through counselling that she found the key to unlocking her grief, after her therapist explained that because Katherine had been providing such care to her father, that they almost had to approach it as if she had lost a child.
“In my mind and in my heart, while he was never a child obviously- he was very capable and competent- I cared for him like he was a child. If I ate, was he eating? If I drank, was he drinking? If I went somewhere, was he ok while I’m gone? Has he got his paper, has he taken his meds, has he his next appointment booked in?” lists Katherine.
“She [the therapist] said, ‘Katherine, I’m going to look at it as if you’re grieving a child’ and that’s when I turned a corner and that helped me most.”
Today, Katherine says that her grief is still there- “that’s the price we pay for love”- but that it doesn’t smother her.
“My grief is beside me now,” she explains, “it’s not on top of me anymore.”
As well as losing her father and facing cancer in her own right, Katherine has tackled many other challenges, which she explores in her book: including being diagnosed with endometriosis and having surgery to have her fallopian tubes, polyps and fibroids removed; being fitted with a bowel pacemaker; discovering she was a coeliac and being diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which means she now wears hearing aids in both ears.
She made a promise to herself, however, that if she went 12 months without a new diagnosis or surgery, that she would use her story to help other people through their own struggles.
The result is Hope To Cope, which Katherine- in typical multi-tasking style- wrote “on the dash of my car on my iPad” during COVID lockdowns, self-published and even impressed Margaret Heffernan of Dunnes Stores, who agreed to stock her book nationwide.
To date, she has raised €30,000 for the Irish Cancer Society and Marymount Hospice, with an ultimate goal of €100,000 by World Cancer Day 2023.
As well as writing honestly about her life experiences, Katherine shares the strategies that have helped her to cope; from very practical advice on list-making and task prioritisation, to practising self-care.
“It’s only literally in the last three years where I’m doing stuff for myself… if I haven’t learnt that from all of this, I’m never going to learn it,” says Katherine.
A case in point was when she was invited by friends to go on holidays for a week. She was not going to go as she felt guilty leaving her children at home, until someone pointed out to her that she would go to hospital for a week; but would never give herself that time to do something nice, just for herself.
“It’s just changing the way you think about things,” she says. “And I have men coming up to me saying, ‘Thank you for putting that in the book because my wife is now going on holidays or going for a night away with me and leaving the children.’”
But self-care does not have to be a foreign holiday; for Katherine it can be as simple as finding 15 minutes in the day for a cup of coffee and a breather.
“I think it’s trying to look at things that spark joy for you and it’s looking at your day and really tuning into yourself,” she says. “It might be going out in the field in a pair of wellingtons, for some people it’s beating the road running, for other people it’s just a massage, sea swimming; it’s listening to your body.”
As the Rise series is inspired by the concept of resilience, Irish Country Living asks what this term means to Katherine.
“It’s just about keeping going and one step in front of the other and shovelling away at that mountain and every now and again, look back at how small it’s getting rather than looking at how big it was,” she responds.
“If everyone wrote down what they’ve been through, I think we would all realise that we are all so resilient. And resilient every day… we underestimate ourselves.”
Ultimately, though, Katherine believes that her story is not about “seeing the good despite circumstances”, but living through the circumstances, and “accepting that sometimes, coping is enough”.
And, of course, the power of hope.
“We throw the word ‘hope’ around every day, don’t we?” she surmises. “‘I ‘hope’ it doesn’t rain, I ‘hope’ the kids get on ok at school, I ‘hope’ I’m not going to be late.’ We just throw this word around and yet we’re all clinging to hope as well; and it is the last thing lost.”
Hope To Cope by Katherine Dolphin Griffin €15 is available from Dunnes Stores nationwide. Follow Katherine on Instagram @my.hope.to.cope.story