I Honored my Son’s Wish to Make a Contribution: 3 Things we Can All Do.


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My son, Josh, died in January 2018 after a year-long battle with bile duct cancer.

During his illness, he inspired us with his determination to make a contribution in the time he had left.

Despite being bed-ridden for a large portion of his time, he managed to appear in an ad campaign for a local cancer charity, collect food parcels for a kids’ charity, and help out at the Christmas party at CHOC, a cancer charity for kids.

When he died, I wanted to keep his memory alive by making my own contribution. But, the truth is, my grief has amplified my introversion.

What used to be the kind of mild social awkwardness that made for good dinnertime stories has morphed into a real aversion for interacting with strangers.

I wanted to find ways I could contribute (more than just donating money) whilst keeping face-to-face contact to a minimum or at least designed to give me maximum flexibility and control.

Here are the things I’ve tried so far:

1. Donating blood.

About a month ago I dragged myself off to the blood bank offices and gave a pint. If you’ve never donated blood before, I made a quick video describing my experience.

Having experienced first-hand the distress when a hospital worker explains that the blood banks are low on stock, this felt like something I could do that would make an immediate, tangible, positive impact.

From a social anxiety perspective, this was mixed. I liked that I didn’t need an appointment and, once the paperwork was done, they left me to my own devices. They also gave me a nice, red water bottle and a tie pin (neither of which I’ve used, but who doesn’t like free stuff?).

On the negative side, I found filling in the medical questionnaire slightly daunting. My heart pounded when I completed the check box for medications. After much too long rambling about my son’s illness and my families propensity for depression, the administrator ticked a box and wrote “chronic” on the form. And even though my blood pressure is under control I still felt awkward and distressed when they checked it.

Overall though, the “non-eventness” of the actual blood-letting part and the pleasure of doing good outweighed my social discomfort. I’d do it again and encourage others to do so.

2. Making social media work for a cause.

I found donating blood so easy and think it’s so important that I decided to create a challenge for my friends and family. I love my friends and family. I just don’t like actually seeing them much. So, despite the fashion of deriding social media, I find it a lifeline.

I set up a Facebook group for the blood donation challenge (I wanted them to help me repay my “debt” of the blood Josh consumed during his illness.) I invited most of my Facebook friends. I also invited them to add their own friends and family. I may or may not have offered to post footage my husband (who is a fainter) out-for-the-count if they met the target before a certain date.

On the positive side, this took very little physical effort (about the hardest thing was figuring out how to size a photo for a Facebook header—I still haven’t got it completely right). I can also close Facebook when it feels too demanding or upsetting.

On the minus side, I should have been (but wasn’t) prepared for all the people who “would love to help but…” I felt every negative comment like a blow to my gut.

Still, the challenge has been successful in creating action around a single activity. The blood is flowing in! I would recommend this if you have thicker skin for the naysayers.

3. Using social media to support others.

It is super easy to do good works on social media merely by moving your mouse. I have a friend with stage four lymphoma who needs to fund a stem cell transplant. I made a point to share her posts with a note to my friends reminding them of all the amazing things this person does. I also share quite a lot of posts for animal shelters and cancer charities.

On the positive side, this is really, really easy. On the minus side, sharing a post doesn’t make me feel like I am actively, directly “doing good.” I’ll keep doing this but it doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as the options that were a little more demanding.

Bonus: virtual dog adoption.

My son loved animals and especially dogs. Adopting an extra dog feels like a burden I can’t take on right now (we already have three and a cat) but I discovered that a local shelter has a gang of dogs who, for one reason or another, are unsuitable or unlikely to get adopted.

I enquired about virtual adoption and the shelter sent me the pictures of two potential pooches to choose from. I chose both and, in return for paying their expenses for the year, I get sent updates on their health and happiness periodically.

On the positive side, this was also super easy. On the minus side, it is really just donating money but somehow making it for a dog makes it feel more meaningful.


Author: Penny Castle
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Yoli Ramazzina


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Penny Castle

Penny Castle is a South African writer and blogger. In 2016 she started a blog to record her passion for veggie gardens. A few weeks later her teenage son was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now she writes about cancer and hope and despair and grief and hope. Visit her blog.

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Penny Castle Apr 17, 2018 6:09am

Thanks Carine!

Carine Holsbeekx Apr 17, 2018 2:21am

Great article Penny ❤

Penny Castle Apr 16, 2018 5:03pm

Thanks Adi!

Adrienne Friedberg Apr 16, 2018 2:58pm

you are an inspiration xxxx

Penny Castle Apr 16, 2018 6:01am

Thanks Brian - It was both strange and wonderful this weekend when I went to support a blood drive held by the families of Josh's two best friends. It really made me think about who must have donated in order for Josh to live.

Brian Low Apr 15, 2018 1:37pm

Sharing Josh's journey with the rest of the world is ispirational in itself, Penny. It has been a pleasure for myself in England and you in South Africa to be linked by Face Book. You continue to inpsire by suggesting that people should donate blood to replenish falling stocks, brought about by Josh's reliance on blood transfusions. I, fortunately, have not required blood, but my wife, who died, in 2015, from the same cancer as Josh, needed blood transfusions while contesting CUP (Cancer of Unknown Primary), before being diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, that took her life three weeks later. It is very easy to forget that someone donated that blood in the first place.

Penny Castle Apr 15, 2018 11:00am

Thanks Angela!

Angela van Straaten Apr 15, 2018 6:45am

Love and strength to you Penny!! You are an inspiration! Josh is so proud!!!

Penny Castle Apr 15, 2018 6:27am

Thanks Emma!

Emma Nash Apr 15, 2018 6:24am

Great article xx

Penny Castle Apr 15, 2018 5:54am

Wow - thanks Rhona! Isn't it funny how it takes tradegy to get us back in contact. I always was a terrble correspondant!

Penny Castle Apr 15, 2018 5:53am

Thanks Lewis. I gives me lots of comfort to know JOshua's life will mean something.

Rhona Loggie Apr 14, 2018 8:11pm

Penny is the strongest woman I know, although I’ve not seen her since I was 18 she has made me weep, made me proud and made me want to take action to help in whatever way I can xxx

Lewis Ryan Apr 14, 2018 8:01pm

I can't begin to understand what you have been through with your loss but thank you for sharing your story and your positive approach to your son's wishes :-)

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 7:30pm

Wow - thanks Veona. That's so kind.

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 7:30pm

It's been such a hard couple of weeks, it feels so good to be able to actually do something!

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 7:22pm

Thanks Whitney

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 7:22pm

Thanks Laura - the families of my son's two best friends organised 32 people to donate blood in his memory today. It felt so good to be doing somehting that can help others.

Veona Watson Apr 14, 2018 7:18pm

Penny your contribution is far more than just the above and you touch many lives every day through your writing.

Jessica N Casey McCrady Apr 14, 2018 7:16pm

Love this! 💚

Whitney Crosser Apr 14, 2018 6:33pm

Great ideas Penny!

Laura Ross Apr 14, 2018 6:12pm

You are such a warrior Penny! Thank you for continung to share your story. I am so inspired by your campaign for blood donations. I’ve sat with my husband while he has received blood and I always thank God for the donators and ask that they be especially blessed.

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 5:22pm

Thanks Jessie!

Penny Castle Apr 14, 2018 5:21pm

Thanks Tayla - I was at the blood bank this week and they only have 2 days stock!

Jessica Ryan Apr 14, 2018 5:15pm

Beautiful words as always Penny x