It was eighteen months before it became clear why Keetie, Carly van den Bos’ mother, was always so tired, why she always felt so unwell. The doctor always said something different every time she went. It’s just menopause, it’s all part of it, stress, take things easier, burnout, do less. At the fourth appointment, Keetie demanded a scan. The results of the scan came in mid-May, when Carly was busy writing her bachelor’s thesis. Her mother had a 9 centimetre tumour on her liver, the doctors said it was incurable and gave her two years to live.

Hope, until the last day

“I found it really hard to focus on my studies”, says Carly at her new flat in The Hague. They spent months painting and doing DIY. Taking it slowly, because things had been so intense. The deep green wall makes the lounge cosy. Even the wall decorations, LPs in this case (including Dire Straits and Earth, Wind & Fire), are already up. There’s a photo of her mother on the shelf. When Carly looks back at the past few months, she sees that what helped her get through those difficult first months was distance and hope. “I had so much hope. My mother was 56 years old, still fit and medical science is always making new discoveries – who knows what could happen in two years’ time? I remained hopeful until the very last day.”

Carly wasn’t always a good student. At secondary school she played truant and her grades were not good. “One teacher said to me: ‘You’ll have to learn how to learn. At some point there will come a time when your logic alone is not enough.’” The teacher was right. During her Bachelor’s in Law Carly is learning how to learn effectively. “Once I’m in the quiet study area in Sanders I can concentrate for hours. From 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the afternoon is not a problem for me.” The result is clear, because from year 1, Carly has been an honours student.

“I was way ahead of schedule on my thesis. Which was lucky, in retrospect, because I feel like I had to rush things and couldn’t perform up to my standards after getting the news about my mother.” Studying on campus was like studying in another world for her, away from the grief at home. “At home, I couldn’t focus on my studies. When I started thinking about everything that was happening, I just couldn’t concentrate. On campus I was distanced from things. I hadn’t told anyone about the situation, so no one asked me about it. Because I had really trained myself to concentrate, I could study for hours. When I got home to the reality of the situation, it really hit me.”

The day she passed her degree

On 11 July, Carly was expecting a phone call. At 5 pm she would find out online whether or not she had passed her Bachelor’s degree. While she was waiting, she did a few odd jobs in her apartment in The Hague. She and her partner Emma had got the keys back in April and Carly’s parents and parents-in-law had come round to celebrate them moving in.

Carly didn’t know that her mother, Keetie, had now been taken into hospital and that it was serious. Her father wanted her to have a normal day, doing jobs around the house, enjoying being together in their new place and celebrating passing her degree. Clearly, they celebrated her success. But that same evening her day changed completely. The doctors called: things weren’t going well. Her father, Carly and her two brothers sat round the table. They held each other’s hands tightly while he told them ‘there’s a chance that mum won’t see out the day’. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she continued: “We spent the whole of that evening and the next day with my mother, together with my aunt and my grandparents. She told us how much she loved us, and how proud she was of us – and how she wished that things could have been different. That evening she died. It was a huge shock, because I remained hopeful till the end.”

Carly van den Bos_staand_6.9.2023_Hilde Speet_HR
At her new home, Carly has a garden. The moving date was delayed due to her mother’s illness. Image credit: Hilde Speet


Carly says it’s too early for her to feel ‘it’s better this way’, or ‘she’s no longer in pain’. “I don’t know how to deal with this grief”, she says. But she says has already learnt some lessons from it. That you shouldn’t wait to do things in your life, for example. “My parents took us travelling from an early age, the five of us made lots of memories together. If I ever have children, I’ll do the same. You mustn’t wait until you’re retired or till it’s the ‘right’ time to enjoy yourself, you have to enjoy yourself all the time. Life is fragile. Sometimes you have to experience something bad in your life to make you see that that’s the case.”

She doesn’t blame the doctors for what happened, there’s no point in focusing on those sorts of negative emotions, she says. “But what I do know is this: if you’re worried that something isn’t right with your body, ask for or demand a scan. I will definitely do that in the future.”

Happy to talk about her mother

While she was in the final stages of her degree, Carly couldn’t talk about her mother’s illness. In mid-August, however, when she was typing a report on her final project on her laptop, she made reference to the death of her mother. “The grief has become part of me, why should I hide it?”, she says, having since started her Master’s in Criminal Law. “Nowadays I’m very happy to talk about my mother, it’s just that I don’t know where to start,” she says. Her friends sometimes find it difficult to know what to say when they find out that her mother has died. The message on LinkedIn did help, however. She now has the support of some 1,500 people and a message from a student who is about to start the same Master’s degree in Amsterdam who has also lost her mother. She and Carly plan to go for coffee together.

If you ask about Keetie, Carly answers by describing what her mother was like. “She was extremely curious, I know she will have found a way of keeping an eye on us all. She was extremely thoughtful and vivacious, she remembered birthdays and when neighbours were going on holiday or had an interview. She wished people luck or wished them well on their travels, or asked how their birthday had been. I think that was one of her great qualities. I hope that I can be like her in some way.”