Andrea Barberio will always be her mother’s daughter. Every day that passes by is a reminder of the strength and resilience of her mom, a woman who spent her days smiling and laughing until her cheeks hurt. She was the kind of woman who made sure everyone lived each day like it were their last, says Andrea.
“My mom had a hard life growing up, but she never showed it. Her dad passed away when she was five, and she lost her brother when she was 22, and then my grandmother. A lot of stuff going on when she was younger, but she always had a smile on her face and made others think positively about others,” said Andrea, 27, of Staten Island, New York.
Nearly three years ago, Andrea was a few months away from graduating trade school to become an ultrasound technician, and her brother was also about to get married. Andrea was excited about the upcoming celebrations when things suddenly took a tragic turn.
Andrea’s mother had already suffered from an abscess in her breast for years that would go away and come back. “It wasn’t cancerous, but after years of it [abscess], doctors said to get it surgically removed along with getting a breast reduction that would prevent it,” said Andrea.
Surgery seemed like the best option at the time to prevent it, though Andrea recalls the family often hesitated and put it off for a long time. She shared that her mother had bad feelings about the surgery and had been long postponing the surgery due to Andrea’s grandmother passing away a year before.
“After a year of my grandma being sick and passing, I had the loss of my mom coming on and that was the worst loss I had ever experienced.”
Andrea shared that ironically, some of the lessons she learned during her time at trade school coincided with the illness her grandmother was going through.
“My grandmother practically raised me and was a second mom to me, and losing her hit me hard and my mom would tell me every day, ‘you are allowed to be sad, the world doesn’t stop. We have to keep going.’”
In January 2016, Andrea’s mom decided to have surgery for the breast reduction and abscess with the help from a breast surgeon and plastic surgeon.
Andrea recalls that a few days before her mom’s surgery, there was a bad snowstorm in New York and her mom had gotten into a minor car accident on a Sunday, just before her scheduled surgery the week after. At the time, Andrea says her mom told her that she got “banged up a little” during the accident, but didn’t think much of it. Her family, still concerned, took her to the hospital to get checked out.
Feeling practically fine, Andrea’s mother decided to continue with the scheduled surgery a few days later. After undergoing the surgery, Andrea’s mother expected to endure a few side effects. She had complained of headaches but felt it was normal because she had just gone through surgery. “She was watching TV on the couch with my dad, and everything seemed normal. There were no signs of anything.”
Andrea’s mom mentioned that she was feeling tired and would be going upstairs to go to sleep. Around half an hour later, Andrea’s dad went upstairs to check up on his wife but found her struggling in bed, unable to breathe properly. Andrea’s dad immediately called Andrea and she started to give her mom CPR before calling 911 and taking her to the hospital.
“Basically the aneurysm ruptured at that moment. But this entire time we had no idea it was an aneurysm,” said Andrea.
At the hospital, doctors worked on Andrea’s mom but told the family she was unresponsive and that her heart was beating, but she was not breathing on her own.
“They put her in a medically induced hypothermic state. At the end of that period, they said she was brain dead and the choice was ours, whether we wanted to keep her on the machines or not and my mom has always said, ‘if I’m ever on machines, take me off,’” said Andrea.
“It was the hardest thing we’ve had to do, but I know my mom was a very independent and lively person and to keep her on the machines wasn’t an option,” she added.
Andrea and her family didn’t know her mother had suffered from an aneurysm until they received an autopsy which revealed that Andrea’s mother had blood clots and an aneurysm rupture. There were still many unknowns and what ifs that remained.
“Being in the medical field myself, we don’t know if an aneurysm had just been dormant or if it was a result of the car accident or the surgery,” said Andrea.
According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, women, more than men, are more likely to suffer from brain aneurysms at a ratio of 3:2. The Foundation suggests that early and accurate diagnosis is critical “because initial hemorrhage may often be fatal and cause devastating neurologic outcomes.“
And according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “brain aneurysms can occur in anyone and at any age.” Additionally, a brain aneurysm consists of a “weak or thin spot on an artery in the brain that balloons or bulges out and fills with blood.” The NIH states that brain aneurysms are most common in adults ages 30-60, but are significantly more prevalent in women than men.
Andrea says she feels as though grief comes in waves and that everyone processes grief differently. It’s something she discussed in depth in her blog post, “Grief Comes in Waves, and Sometimes Those Waves Knock Us Down.”
“With my mom, there really wasn’t any time to grieve because I was just finishing up with school. I was starting an internship, my brother was getting married in April and we had to get things together for the wedding. Everything just came one after the other,” said Andrea, who shared that she was in a toxic relationship at the time when her mom passed away. Her ex-boyfriend wasn’t the most supportive during her time of grief. “He wanted me to rush the grieving and complained to me wanting to spend time with my dad as opposed to being with him. I was really juggling a lot and I didn’t have time to focus on myself. I had to push through it and I became the mom of the house and had to handle things and put my emotions aside.”
After her mom’s sudden passing, Andrea was devastated. She started looking into self-help books for dealing with grief and also looked to the women in her life for support, strength, and guidance.
“My friends also really jumped into full force to help me with everything,” she said. In fact, one of her friends gave Andrea a mason jar filled with positive quotes for her to read every morning. Grateful for the positive messages, Andrea decided to make an Instagram account, @_morning_mantras_, to share the positive messages she had received with other women across the world. “I thought, if I’m getting these messages, other people can also benefit from these messages too.”
During her grief, Andrea also spent an endless amount of time on the Internet, searching for grief support groups when she finally encountered a Facebook support group called “Motherless Daughters” for the New York City chapter. She knew she was meant to join the group and help herself and others who felt alone in their grief.
While active on the New York City Motherless Daughters Facebook group page, Andrea later connected with two women—Nicole Smith and Audrey Giambrone– both of whom had lost their moms to pancreatic cancer and an aneurysm, respectively. After bonding with one another, the three girls decided to join forces to serve as admins for a Facebook support group page, Staten Island Motherless Daughters, to better serve the women of Staten Island.
“Nicole was the one to reach out to Audrey and myself. Nicole physically made the page, but the three of us run it, and we try to plan meetings.” Andrea shared that Audrey’s mother had an aneurysm before she passed on, and Nicole’s mother had pancreatic cancer and started an organization, Bella Lisa Pancreatic Cancer Foundation, in honor of her mother.
Though the three “sisters” have only met in person a few times in the last year, Andrea says they have a very strong and unique bond—the kind strengthened and shaped by loss.
“This kind of loss, it creates a bond between people,” said Andrea. “This all became a sisterhood between us. We created this page because a lot of the NYC meetings are in Manhattan, and it’s hard for women to get out there. It’s accessible, but it’s kind of the suburb away from the city.”
Within a few days of creating a similar page for the women of Staten Island, the number of member request increased to 400 and continues to go strong, nearly a year later.
“It’s upsetting to see this number of women share the situation we are in, but every single woman has something in common: loss,” said Andrea. “I still get members messaging us saying, ‘you don’t know how much this means to just have a place to go and talk about this where women understand me and there’s no judgment on how any of us grieve or feel.’”
Andrea says she is grateful for the sisterhood between herself, Nicole, and Audrey, as the co-founders of the Staten Island Facebook page. In the short amount of time that they’ve known each other, they’ve really grown to understand one another on a deeper level, she shared.
“Women are extremely empathetic, especially when they have something in common. Think about how many friends you’ve made in the girl’s bathroom. When something as severe as mother loss happens, it’s practically second nature to understand a woman with the same loss and want to support her.”
Andrea is happy to be a part of a small, sacred place on the Internet where women in Staten Island can talk about how they feel without worrying about judgment or how to grieve.
“We live in a modern time where everyone treats social media as a diary. We don’t understand how important it may be to someone to air their emotions to the public, and some people just may not be understanding of how important this can be. This is why this Facebook group is so important; there is no judging or eye rolling whenever someone posts about their feelings.”
This February will mark three years since Andrea’s mom passed. Today, Andrea continues to share her mother’s story while spreading awareness about aneurysms and navigating unexpected loss while practicing self-care to survive.
She urges people–particularly women, who are at higher risk for aneurysms–to get screened earlier on, especially if they have a family history. Andrea shares that she and her brother get tested yearly to screen for aneurysms.
Andrea is currently an ultrasound technician and works for a vascular surgeon in Manhattan, New York. In many ways, her work plays a key role in prevention and early detection of blood clots and other abnormalities. “We check to make sure the patients don’t have blood clots. I know day to day, it might not seem important, but for me, it’s my way to keep this from happening to someone’s family,” said Andrea, who believes her work is guided by the strength from her mother and a sign that she was meant to continue working in the medical field to save lives.
Andrea sees a divine purpose in the work she does and is constantly reminded of her mom’s courage and wonderful sense of humor and thanks her for instilling the importance of family in her. “Everything I do is for her.”
It took 27 years for Andrea to understand not to take life too seriously, she shared. Every moment is precious, and every moment should be spent with a smile.
“It’s still something I struggle with. I think my mom really understood that you only have this one life and if you’re not living every single day how you want to live it and not smiling, it’s not worth it.”
Andrea says she is a huge proponent of self-care. It’s something she’s continually working on despite her busy schedule as a diagnostic medical sonographer. Andrea believes it is important that women stop, slow down, and listen to what we need instead of always being on the go and putting others first. “One common thing we speak about is, ‘how do we mother ourselves since our mothers are not here?’ I can’t just go and lay my head on my mother’s lap, so I think self-care is very important and our meetups and this group is self-care. It’s something that no one can stop me from doing and it’s a very important thing to do to survive.”
Andrea credits her mom and grandmother, the two women in her life who raised her, for showing and paving the path for the woman she wanted to be.
“Even in their absence, I can still hear them giving me advice about things I should do. They are the ones whose voices will stay with me forever.”
-Written by Monica Luhar, Mornings with Moni