"Live with no regrets, Love with Compassion, Be Kind, and Never Ever Give up that Fighting Spirit..."
Above Photo: Hannah and her baby brother Robbie.
MONMOUTH COUNTY, NJ: March 18th, 2021, celebrates 22 years since the birth of forever 14, Hannah Duffy. According to Hannah's mom Susan Funck, Hannah was curious from her first moments, and her zest for life from a very young age was incredible.
Hannah tragically passed away on September 26, 2013 at the age of 14, following a year-long battle with brain cancer. According to her mom, Hannah never let cancer define her, and was determined to live her best life, for however long that may have been. Two weeks after brain surgery, not only was she back on the soccer field, but she scored the winning goal in double overtime for her middle school team.
It was at that moment she showed the world that no matter what life throws at you, give it your best and NEVER EVER GIVE UP. "Hannah's spontaneous nature, kind soul and contagious laugh are what are missed most. Her spirit and her positive attitude in the worst of times have brought out the best in so many people," comments Funck.
Her greatest wish was to be remembered, and at 14 years old, she IS being remembered…not for how she died, but because of how she lived.
TAPinto had the opportunity to interview Hannah's mom Susan Funck:
JW: Tell me about Hannah, from the moment you knew you were pregnant. Where did she grow up, etc.
SF: Hannah was my first miracle baby, a true gift after years of infertility. I had the most amazing pregnancy and cherished every moment of it. I didn’t know if I was having a boy or a girl but had shared our selected names with the doctor. I’ll never forget the moment she was born and was placed in my arms as our Dr said, "Welcome to the world, Hannah Rose”. Hannah means ‘Gift from God’ in Hebrew and her middle name is in honor of my grandmother. Our beautiful Hannah, she was a ball of energy from the moment she was born. Always active and on the go from the very beginning…napping was not in her vocabulary! She was born at St. Barnabus Hospital, in Livingston, NJ, on March 18th, 1999. She would have been celebrating her 22nd birthday this year.
JW: Tell me about your family, husband, Hannah’s little brother?
Hannah and I were always extremely close and shared an incredible bond. I had been divorced from her father since she was three years old, and met my now husband John when Hannah was six. The two of them formed an incredible bond over the years and John adored Hannah as his own. He knew when he married me that I came as a package deal! Robbie is also a miracle baby, and is now 10 years old. For years Hannah had asked for a baby brother (she was very specific), and she was overjoyed when her wish finally came true with the birth of her baby brother. Even though they were 12 years apart, they shared the most incredible bond, and she poured more love into him in his 2-1/2 years with her than most experience in a lifetime. During our last hospital stay prior to coming home on hospice, she said something to me that I will never forget… she said, “Robbie is your gift because God knew he was going to need me back too soon.”
JW: What was Hannah most passionate about?
SF: Hannah was most passionate about her baby brother Robbie, first and foremost. When we told her the news that she was finally going to be a big sister to a baby brother, she cried with joy and told us that it had been her wish when she would blow out her birthday candles from the time she was six years old. They were 12 years apart in age, but she loved and adored him more than anything in the world. Aside from Robbie, her other two passions were soccer and her friends. Hannah was an incredible athlete and absolutely loved the sport of soccer, playing on both her school and travel teams. Even after she got sick, she gave it her all and played until she physically couldn’t do so any longer. Her friends meant the world to her – she was fiercely loyal to those she held close, and kind to everyone she met. She had a presence about her that instantly made you feel comfortable. Something we heard over and over again during her services (as well as in the years since she has passed) was that she was always so kind. As a mother, hearing that about Hannah is one of our greatest gifts. We teach our children to be kind ‘in’ our presence, but to know she was kind when we weren’t there is a beautiful legacy. And, lastly, as her friends will tell you, she was also funny as hell!
JW: How did you realize Hannah was sick?
SF: We had no prior warning or clue that Hannah had a deadly brain tumor brewing until a very hot summer day in July 2012. She was on a beach vacation with her father and experienced a seizure. I’ll never forget that day, it was a Thursday and normally I would have been at work in Newark, but on that day I was at a client meeting in Ocean County. As I was walking out of the meeting my phone rang and while there were a lot of words spoken from the other end, all I heard was “Hannah, seizure, hospital”. I raced to the hospital and by the time I arrived she seemed back to herself, so they released her with instructions to follow up with our pediatrician. The attending physician wasn’t too concerned and thought she was just dehydrated due to the extreme heat. The next day I took her to the pediatrician, who scheduled her for an MRI. Unfortunately, Hannah was initially misdiagnosed as we were told she had a benign congenital abnormality. It wasn’t until September 19th that we knew something was terribly wrong when she experienced a massive seizure following soccer practice. After a few days in a local NJ hospital, Hannah was transferred to CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), where they diagnosed her with a brain tumor. At this point, she was having frequent seizures and their first priority was getting them under control with the appropriate medications. Once she was stabilized, she had brain biopsy surgery to determine the type of tumor and treatment plan. When the biopsy results came in, nothing could have prepared me for the news I was about to be given…the pathology showed not one, but two types of malignant brain tumors. Words that I couldn’t even pronounce at the time are now seared into my memory – anaplastic astrocytoma and gliomatosis cerebri – terminal at diagnosis. How did we get here??? Just two weeks prior, she was playing competitive soccer, so it was very difficult to wrap my brain around the possibility that my beautiful little girl, just barely a teenager, was going to die. It was impossible to fathom. October 1st was her surgery and October 5th (official diagnosis day) was the day our lives truly changed forever.
JW: How do you explain this to a child? How did Hannah react to her diagnosis?
SF: A little backstory is needed for this question because hearing that she had a brain tumor was not a surprise to Hannah, I truly believe she knew before we did. One night, weeks prior to her diagnosis but in the time prior to the second massive seizure that ultimately landed us at CHOP, we were sitting on the couch watching TV together, and she said, “I think I have a brain tumor”. Of course, I immediately said, no, that is not possible, but again, I truly believe it was her soul talking (more on that later on). After her diagnosis she wrote in her journal, “Soon the daily Dr. visit from Dr Belasco was very important. I had learned that the “abnormality” in my brain was in fact a brain tumor. Somehow, I knew, I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but it wasn’t a surprise to me, it was like I expected it." When Dr. Belasco shared the news with Hannah that it was in fact a brain tumor, the first question she asked the doctor was, “is it benign or malignant?” At that moment, Dr B (as she was lovingly called) knew that this young girl was special, a fighter, who was wise beyond her years. She told her honestly that they wouldn’t know until the biopsy results came back after surgery, but that she would always be honest with Hannah, regardless of the news, good or bad. Another moment seared into my memory is hearing Hannah’s official diagnosis for the first time. Again, there were a lot of words spoken in that hospital conference room, but all I heard was “malignant, terminal”, and then my mind went blank, and I felt as though I was outside my body. I remember the first question I asked the doctor after she shared the news…not about treatment plans, stats, etc, no, I asked, “can she still play soccer?” It sounds so crazy to think about that now but at that moment she had lost so much already, and I just couldn’t walk back in that room and tell her that on top of everything else, she could never play soccer again. Thankfully, she had the most amazing doctor who knew how much Hannah loved the sport – she told Hannah she could play under two conditions, she must wear concussion headgear and promise no headers. After we left that conference room and went back to Hannah’s room, Dr Belasco sat next to her on her bed, held both her hands and told her the news. She cried at first, but then almost as quickly pulled herself together and said, “I want to fight,” and so she did with all her might for the next almost exactly 365 days.
JW: What was Hannah’s mantra? Words she liked to say? Etc.
SF: The mantra that Hannah left us with is simple….”Love Always Wins”…no matter what, in the end, love is all that matters. She radiated love and kindness, and courage, in the face of unspeakable challenge.
JW: I love the stories you share about Hannah’s signs to you. Can you highlight the most profound?
SF: We receive so many signs from Hannah, but I have to say one of the most profound, and tangible, sign relates to a specific time of day, 9:11. Even the backstory of how this sign came to be is quite extraordinary. We had a number of very difficult, yet beautiful, conversations together during that last hospital stay. One of the things we talked about was signs that she would send to us after she passed. I asked for butterflies and some other random things…mid conversation she got real quiet and then all of a sudden said, “when you look at the clock and see 9:11, know that it’s me”. I asked her why 9:11 and she said, “I don’t know, lately every time I look at the clock I see that, so write it down and don’t forget.” So, of course, I wrote it down along with the other items we had discussed. Over the next weeks, I tried to analyze why she said that, did it have a deeper meaning, and thought about all sorts of scenarios, but the reality is that while maybe Hannah consciously didn’t know why it was important, her soul knew. You see, Hannah died on 9/26/13 at exactly 9:11pm. So, we ALWAYS say “Hi Hannah” every time the clock shows 9:11, and have taken it one step further to say “hi” whenever we see the 11th minute on the clock. It’s incredible how often and at random times we see it, and it’s super sweet when Robbie yells, “it’s 3:11 (or 4 or 5, etc), hi Hannah”. It’s a beautiful, tangible way to keep her close, along with all the other signs we see – the #3, her soccer number, butterflies, ladybugs in the middle of winter, and more. Another of our most profound signs is the brightest of sun rays when they break through the clouds. She also told us to look for her in the brightest of sunshine, and if we keep her in our hearts, she will always be with us.
JW: How has Hannah’s signs helped others? (I love the story about your father’s signs).
SF: I’ve heard so often that our family’s honesty and openness in sharing Hannah’s story has allowed others to believe in signs.
JW: What were Hannah’s interests? Sports? Favorite color? Favorite number?
SF: Hannah was an incredible athlete, but her first love was soccer. She was also a bad ass skateboarder too! I used to take her and a friend to the skate park in Long Branch often, and I’ll never forget the look on the boys’ faces when she walked past them with her board and dropped into the pool. They couldn’t believe ‘a girl’ could do that! That was Hannah, fearless! Her favorite color was purple, and her soccer number was 3.
JW: What did Hannah teach you while on the physical earth? Spiritually?
SF: Most importantly, Hannah taught us to live in the moment, never sweat the small stuff, and love unconditionally. She also led the way when it came to her journey with cancer. Early on, she made me promise to always be honest with her, regardless of the news, and that really set the tone for how transparent we were with her and everyone around us during her illness.
JW: Give me examples of ways Hannah positively impacted others while living the earth and after her physical presence left?
SF: Hannah was incredibly strong and courageous – an example of this was her refusal to have a port placed for chemotherapy. She wanted to continue to play soccer and having a port would not allow her that option. So, she received her chemo through IV infusions once every two weeks so that she could continue to play the game she loved so much. There’s a story of the magical soccer game that really changed everything for our community of Tinton Falls…it was October 17th and Hannah’s first game back on the field after brain surgery less than 3 weeks prior. Just seeing her suited up for the game was a miracle, but she and her teammates played their hearts out and the score was tied entering into golden goal overtime. Hannah scored the winning goal and the crowd erupted in cheers, it was like watching a Disney movie in real time. From that moment on, Hannah taught everyone to never ever give up, and to always keep fighting. That day, the battle cry, “Duffy’s Toughies” was born. That is truly her legacy, now years later, Hannah is remembered for never giving up.
JW: Have you communicated with Hannah through a medium?
SF: We have had some incredible experiences connecting with Hannah through mediums, one local in Monmouth County, as well as with Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium. Hannah & I have always been incredibly spiritual and years prior to her illness we began watching the LIM, and never missed an episode. When she initially got sick, she said to me, “if I die, you need to promise me you’ll meet with Theresa so you can talk to me”. I said, Ok, sure, but brushed it aside because I didn’t really want to talk about the possibility of her dying at that time. As the year went on, she would casually mention it again, but then she became insistent and made me promise. I had mentioned it in passing to her social worker at the hospital, and unbeknownst to me, she made a call to Make-A-Wish to see if they could make Hannah’s wish come true (she had a prior approved wish to visit Bora Bora, but she became too ill to travel). A few minutes later, the social worker came back and let us know that Hannah’s wish to allow me (mom) to talk with Theresa after she died would be granted. It was so surreal, and Hannah was so happy. Fast forward a few weeks and we home on hospice care. We received a call from MAW that Theresa was so touched by Hannah’s request that she wanted to meet her. The very next day, Theresa and Larry came to our house (no cameras) to visit with Hannah and our family. She was so warm and loving, and incredibly kind. She stayed talking with us and Hannah for four hours -it was an incredible day. But, most important, she spent some alone time with Hannah and promised her that she would meet with me when I was ready but she needed to assure her that Hannah didn’t ‘need’ Theresa to talk to mommy, that she would be able to do that herself as well. What a gift that was to Hannah, it truly gave her the peace that she desperately needed, knowing that she would be able to ‘talk’ to mommy after she died. Ultimately, we did have our private reading with Theresa a year after Hannah passed away, it was incredible, and she gave us validation that all the signs that we see truly are gifts from our girl.
JW: How old would Hannah be this month and how did she like to celebrate her birthday? I love your 31 stories! Can you tell me exactly what the 31 days entail?
SF: Hannah would be celebrating her 22nd birthday on March 18th of this year. She always loved her birthday and announced from a very young age that March was her birthday month, and we needed to celebrate her all month long! Though, she did give John one day of the month (the 19th, the day after hers) to celebrate his birthday, but he only got one day, the rest of the month was hers!
JW: You are inspiring others and giving hope with Hannah’s journey. What is your hopeful purpose for sharing her stories?
SF: My hope for sharing these stories over the course of the 31 days is two-fold. We asked friends, teachers, family members, coaches and teammates of Hannah’s to share memories of her and how knowing her has impacted their lives, to remind her that her fear of being forgotten was completely unfounded. But more importantly, I hope that people understand that losing someone isn’t just “a moment in time that you move on from and get over.” Losing Hannah has had ripple effects for so many people and by highlighting these stories, we can all reflect on the incredible impact she has had and continues to have on so many. Selfishly, it’s also a beautiful gift for Robbie as he grows up – to know how loved his sister is, and also how much she loves and adores him too.
JW: What would you tell another bereaved parent if you could help them on what I believe to be the most difficult journey imaginable?
SF: I would say that there is no timeline for grief, and everyone’s grief journey is different – there is no right or wrong way to experience grief and loss. For me personally, I find that writing and sharing stories helps me the most. I’ve also sought out the help of support groups for both myself as well as for Robbie.
JW: I believe the most difficult journey, the unimaginable is that of a bereaved parent. What are things that people can do to help a bereaved parent? Any misconceptions to highlight or things not to say?
SF: The best thing someone can do for a bereaved parent is to just be present. No words are needed, and if I’m being honest, there’s nothing that can be said to ease the pain of losing a child. Give hugs, reach out, and reach out again because more often than not, we may not respond right away. One thing NOT to do, don’t ever compare your grief to that of a bereaved parent, it is not the same. And, as time moves forward, please say our child’s name….that is the greatest gift to a bereaved parent, knowing their child is not forgotten. I love the quote from Elizabeth Edwards on the loss of her child…”If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great, great gift.”
JW: What is Hannah’s legacy?
SF: Hannah left us with an amazing legacy, and we live our lives every day in honor of our girl. She leaves behind her little brother Robbie, whom she loved more than life itself. He received more love in his 2-1/2 years with her than most people experience in a lifetime. Shortly before she died, she said to me, “Robbie is your gift, because God knew he was going to need me back too soon.” She made me promise to raise him with a smile, and to make sure he always knows how much she loved him.
There is no greater gift for a grieving mother than to know that her child is remembered. And, at 14 years old, Hannah IS being remembered…not for how she died, but because of how she lived.
On the night Hannah died, I said these words...Live with no regrets, Love with compassion, Be kind, and Never ever give up that fighting spirit." If you live those simple words, you will honor our beautiful Hannah because that is how she lived her life.