[2021-02-10] Alive

Last night, I had a lovely conversation with a friend—also a cancer survivor—who shared with me that, while she was going through treatment, she regularly told herself: "Do not die while you are yet alive."

She couldn't recall the source of the quote at the time, but today I found a similar reference in a 2015 post by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, which she published a month after her husband died:

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: "Let me not die while I am still alive." I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I found Sandberg's entire post interesting and relevant to my current circumstances even though she is talking about the loss of a loved one and I am experiencing a life-threatening illness. I have sometimes mourned myself and worried about the possibility of a premature death. But I have found solace in reminding myself that I am alive today, and that's all that matters.

The notion of "Let me not die while I am still alive" goes beyond simply surviving: the opposite of death isn't just being alive—it's living. And living conjures up all sorts of ideas: enjoying life, laughing, experiencing joy, connecting with others, loving, learning, being in nature, giving, accepting, expressing gratitude.

Sandberg notes in her post:

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

I appreciate Sandberg's admission that she had given in to a vast emptiness and would continue to do so in many moments in the future. I, too, have had my moments—times when I worried about my loved ones and the void that they would experience if I were to die.

Sandberg goes on to say:

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And so do I. In addition to life and meaning, I choose hope. Why not tell myself every day that I will live and that I will have a more meaningful life as a result of having faced cancer?

Sandberg says that she shared her story and what she learned to help others and to find some meaning in the tragedy. She recognizes the bravery of the many people who shared their experiences with her, both close friends and total strangers.

I, too, have benefited from the generosity of both friends and strangers, among them individuals who have had cancer themselves and people who have loved those who did.

One of the things that Sandberg says she learned is that we often don't know how to speak to someone who has lost a loved one, in the same way that we don't know how to address someone with late-stage cancer:

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was "It is going to be okay." That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.

Having lost my brother Greg 18 months ago, I know how comforting it was to me to have people acknowledge my loss. Similarly, I appreciate it today when people reach out to me and say: "I'm sorry to hear about what you're going through. I'm thinking of you, and I'm here if you need me."

Unlike Sandberg or her friend with late-stage cancer, I've never minded when people have said, "Everything is going to be OK." I know that some people who have dealt with cancer don't like these sentiments, but I have always focused on the intention behind the words, which I think is to be positive and to express hope, as much for me as for themselves. Nevertheless, I do agree with Sandberg that sometimes the best thing we can do is to recognize that a situation is not OK.

Just as Sandberg learned that she was ill-equipped to console others who had lost a loved one, she discovered that her coworkers struggled with the same thing:

Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing.

I've had this same experience. In fact, just the other day, a former colleague and friend wrote to me, saying that she hadn't contacted me sooner because she just wasn't ready. She noted that my blog has enabled her to remain connected to me, albeit at a distance, which has brought her comfort. She replied to an email I sent to distribute a recent post to share an article that she had read and that had made her think of me. My being open about my progress through this blog has invited others to connect with me—in their own time. And my graciously accepting all well wishes has communicated that people needn't fear that they will say the wrong thing.

Sandberg suggests an alternative to "How are you?" that I find useful:

Even a simple "How are you?"—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with "How are you today?" When I am asked "How are you?" I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear "How are you today?" I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

A friend of mine consistently asks: "How are you today?" Like me, she is recovering from a health issue and has good days and not so good days. That said, I don't personally mind "How are you?" If the question is expressed verbally, an emphasis on the second word—How are you?—suggests a genuine curiosity to know the answer.

Sandberg admits that she still mourns the life she wanted to have with her husband. She says:

I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, "But I want Dave. I want option A." He put his arm around me and said, "Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B."

I think it's healthy to acknowledge that the life we wanted is no longer possible. In my case, Option A would be having my brother in my life and not having ovarian cancer. But I'm committed to making the most of Option B. That includes keeping Greg's memory alive and thinking of him often and fondly, and—despite my cancer—living every day with gratitude.