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When Death Strikes

How to find resilience when the world comes crashing down

I left rural, sun-soaked, animal-filled northern California to attend Smith College, to live in France, to work on Wall Street, to attend Columbia Business School, to move to London, to work in financial services before Death first came. At my mom’s diagnosis, lung cancer had already polka-dotted her liver and slipped deep into the marrow of her bones. The doctor gave her less than a 5% survival rate. Naively, I wasn’t alarmed. In many ways my mom had always been in the top 5%, so I saw no reason why she couldn’t be again. The night before she passed, she woke saying, “I am going to die.” I plucked clumps of coarse hair from her white laced pillowcase, trying to soothe her with a tone that I hoped hid how disturbing I found her physical deterioration, her fetid smell. I thought she meant she was so sick it felt that she would die. Instead, by early morning – exactly six weeks from her diagnosis – she was gone. So, she saw death coming for her. Instead, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening, and it had already transpired. Until that second, I had one life. Then, like a landslide, that life was gone.

Death has come many times since then. I have lost an additional five friends, including my two oldest childhood friends who shockingly, unrelatedly both died of drug overdoses. These were girls with whom I mastered Farah Fawcett hairstyles, shared baby blue eyeshadow and told about first kisses in the middle school bathroom. No families are perfect, but my friends were well-loved and well-cared for, raised in a solidly middle-class neighborhood where the expectation was we would go to college, have careers, and families.

Death has also taken my husband’s entire nuclear family – father, mother and sister – all gone. Dementia came for his parents. We cared for them as their minds eroded, and then as their bodies gave out. Born with multiple orthopedic ailments, my husband’s sister Arabella later became a renowned orthopedic pediatric surgeon and chief of staff at Shriners Hospital. Eschewing a lucrative private practice, Arabella dedicated her life to helping kids who lacked resources, and who – like her – would otherwise not walk without medical attention. A non-smoker, at 48 years she contracted lung cancer. Within hours of her diagnosis, she had a stroke. She was the 1% that hemorrhaged as a side effect of the stroke drug she was administered. At her funeral, her young patients came to sing hymns, many still in their casts.

It wasn’t just death that came but also cancer. When my first two children were fifteen months and three weeks old, my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, which took years to battle. My husband’s cancer had an unusual pathology. When his cancer had not responded to his first course of treatment, I asked the Sloane Kettering doctor what insight could be derived about my husband’s disease given its failed response. The doctor said to me, “not all people survive.” I remember walking out of the hospital trying to process this news while breast milk leaked wet circles onto my pink, button-down shirt. 

Each of these was a blow. With the deaths, certainly, grief hit me hard, and it has taken its time to pass. With big love comes big grief, and I have been blessed with enormous loves. There have been times when faced with immense heartbreak, I have thought, Not again! I have tried stubbornly to bury grief right where I stand, but then like infection, grief has festered and corroded. After a while, all that bottled pain hurts as much as the pain of loss. It has been impossibly hard, but finally I have had to move into grief’s stinging, shattering darkness so I can make it to the other side.

How to survive such raw, searing unhappiness, black like a Dementor’s kiss sucking out every good feeling and memory? My answer: Family. Friends. Work. God. You dig deep into your reserves. If you must, you go through the motions, because sometimes the motions become real some of the time. You cry and cry. I have found that if hurt is felt, over time it seeps from the heart, leaving an open space where grief once was. In this space, in time, I have found that my lost ones have rushed in like a fair wind, reconstituting themselves. In this way, I hold them close like we are one. One day, in all the sadness, something unexpectedly makes me laugh and laugh, and I am astonished that I still know how. It is in this astonishment I first feel their flutter in my heart, a rippling as warm as sun. With the rippling comes a feeling of poignancy so pure that it floods my soul until there is nothing else. I cry, and I laugh because it is all the many sides of the same love.

Death has showed me that life is short. Even when it is not cut off prematurely, our turns pass in a blink. This has made me want to go for it, to live life full out, come what may. It was our plan to have four kids. We decided if we had changed our plans because of cancer, then cancer would have won, regardless of whether there was relapse. We did not want to live in fear. Even without cancer, life is unpredictable, full of chance. Making choices based on fear felt like a slippery slope — afraid of cancer today, afraid of traffic accidents the next — until our whole life would be circumscribed by perceived threats. 

Death has also spotlighted how life is full of problems. Some problems are easier, like how to pack a car with too many bags. Others are harder, like how to be a mother to a daughter like Arabella that needs relentless medical care. Understanding that problems are a constant has helped me know I am not alone when having a tough time. Instead of floundering in self-pity, I am more able to get on with it, even on those heavy, oppressive days that feel like ball and chains to be dragged through swampy blackness. I have found the trick is to move into and through problems. I think that we evolve only when we are constantly facing new difficulties, not when we are mired in the same old issues. The gift of problems is that if we can get through them healthfully, with our values intact, they teach skills, wisdom, and strength that benefit us our entire lives.

On ball and chain days, I have found this useful: when the day is overwhelming, think only about the next hour. When the next hour is too much, ask what needs to be done in the next 10 minutes. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A novel can be broken into chapters, into paragraphs into that very first word. Usually, I have found, I can write at least one word. 

After the “not everyone survives” moment, we found an exceptional doctor at Dana-Farber, who cared for our minds and hearts as much as he did for my husband’s body. When we asked about the benefits of meditation, our Dana-Farber doctor said that when it came to cancer, nothing was malarkey. What he meant was that surviving cancer was both a physical and mental fight. We should pursue whatever helped, and what rallied us might be totally different than what helped someone else. This caused us to go after everything: meditation, visualization, better nutrition, funny movies, etc. We reasoned that while each might only improve my husband’s odds by a fraction of a percent, we wanted every fraction that we could get. A 31% survival rate sounded significantly better than a 29% chance, especially given that we were talking about my husband’s life. It also empowered us in a situation where otherwise we felt helpless, reactive, not proactive. 

I found that there is almost always a way to take back power, even when the world is falling to pieces through no fault of my own. I have discovered that if I change my thoughts, I can affect my feelings, in turn influencing my actions. For example, my emotions when thinking: “You spoiled child, after taking you to the zoo you act like this” are much different from those arising from the thought: “You are just a toddler and very tired. You have imperfect ways of handling your emotions other than to throw yourself on the floor in frustration.” Of course, it can be hard to control one’s point-of-view. For some thoughts, it has taken years for me to not react impulsively. Nevertheless, it has been fortifying knowing that my reality can improve just by altering my perspective. Being able to influence my perspective has meant that I am more apt to go for that extra fraction of a percent, rather than giving up the battle before it has begun. 

More than once, I wondered why hard things keep happening to me, why we all seem to live our own Story of Job, individually not fair, not just. For some, the story is told more forcibly than it is with others. I have come to think that perhaps, just maybe we are all interconnected — the seven billion of us alive now, those who have lived before, those still to be born. Link by link, perhaps we all connect over space and time. Some connections are obvious — families, friends, work colleagues. Others more tenuous — the money we give our dry cleaner feeds her family just as people who use our work pay for our dishwasher soap. Maybe, there are also our connections to strangers. The balloon that escapes our hand distracts the driver who strikes the mother crossing the street. We are oblivious, but our hand still had a part. If we are all threads in one great and enormous cloth, then perhaps my difficulties are the cost of another’s gifts. Perhaps my hardships create learning that not only benefits myself and my family, but also helps people whom I will never meet.
Ultimately, I have come to believe that death is two truths contradicting – which sounds strange because how can truths contradict? A truth: my life would be better if my mom was alive. A truth: my life has been equally good even without her existence. How do I know? Truthfully, it is hard for me to back that statement up with factual specificity. I don’t always see the pattern through the threads. 

Still, what I do know is this goodness, this wonder, this exquisiteness is so perfect that it takes my breath. I find this goodness in family, friendship, a thought well-crafted, unanticipated kindness, the beauty of a flower in peak bloom, a moose so close that its suddenness makes my heart thump. I feel it like sun pooled in my palm – weightless, formless, at times not even discernable for all the light, but still with real warmth. I hear it in silence and all the sounds within the silence – water rushing, birds calling, leaves tinkling like bells. I sense it in the possibilities outside known reality, spooky action at a distance.
If my mom were alive, certainly my life would be different. Perhaps it would vary in only small ways – a Sunday lunch with her instead a mountain bike with friends. Perhaps my life would have had a drastically different course — if she hadn’t died quickly, for instance, I might have dedicated years to care for her. What I do know is that my mom would not want my life to be devalued by her passing. She would want me to live fully, to rediscover resilience and optimism again and again, regardless of what comes, no matter how hard.
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