Celeste Pagan learned to find her own way after son Carter’s death

CarterCarter Pagan was a smart, funny, 5’11” 19-year-old when he graduated as part of the Woodside High School class of 2015. But unlike most of his peers, he knew he probably had only months to live.

His mom Celeste said that Carter’s death is something they’d thought about his entire life. When he was born prematurely weighing just 1 lb, 7 ounces, doctors said he wasn’t going to make it. “He almost died so many times,” she says.

With the support of Celeste and the rest of his family, Carter lived life fully – despite cerebral palsy, vision impairment, a seizure disorder, and other life-limiting ailments.

After a bad fall and a series of surgeries, Carter needed a wheelchair to get around. Still, Celeste says, “Carter never saw himself as disabled.” With help from his family and an aide, Carter went sailing, ziplining, and canoeing. He followed his passions for sports, music, and religion.

Pagan familyEventually, the prospect of Carter’s death became more real, and hospice care was the best way to make him comfortable. For Celeste, knowing that Carter was in good hands with his Mission Hospice team was everything. “Our experience with Mission Hospice was just beautiful. It was a support village for our whole family.”

Carter and his dad Randy both developed a special relationship with volunteer Paul Smith, who helped Carter come to terms with his mortality. Social Worker Sonia Estival provided regular support for Celeste, often over coffee. Bereavement Coordinator Isabel Stenzel supported Carter’s younger sister Hailey, who Celeste says “was Carter’s arms, legs, and eyes.”

In November 2015, Carter died at home, after a quiet morning with Hailey and their older sister Kat. His passing brought a huge shift for the family, especially Celeste, who had fought for Carter for so many years.

Celeste wasn’t interested in going to a bereavement support group, but her husband Randy was – so they went together. “It was wonderful to find so many people who have lost someone – you feel an instant connection.”

Isabel adds, “The Pagan family came consistently to our drop-in support groups, and demonstrated that sharing grief is how we heal. They are finding their way through a devastating loss.”

Celeste’s high-energy, all-in approach to life – including her commitment to processing her grief – is so inspirational, she was an invited speaker at Mission Hospice’s annual memorial service in June 2019, where she shared Carter’s story.

Carter is still ever-present: in the hearts and minds of his family, his former teachers and schoolmates, and in the photos and poems Celeste carries with her. “I feel like Carter makes me who I am today. He makes me carry on.”

“There was a point when I felt like it wasn’t ok to be happy. Now I feel like I can be happy. Carter would want me to be happy. It’s ok to be ok. I’m laughing again.”

“Mission Hospice gave me a lot of tools that I could use. What I learned from Mission Hospice is how to find my own way.”