Permission to Live

Today I attended the beautiful, heart-breaking funeral of a fellow young adult with cancer.

I don’t know what to write, because everything I put down sounds selfish to me. But, I guess that’s the nature of Survivor’s Guilt. So. . . I guess I’ll try to write without overthinking how it sounds and just let out what I need to let out. Here we go. . .

Since my diagnosis, I’ve met many other survivors and lost a few, too. Very few are close enough in proximity that I have the chance to meet them in person. Marcie was supposed to get better after a vacation and a minor procedure and we were supposed to get coffee and start the healing process with other survivors. She was supposed to be preparing for the holiday season with her family. But that obviously didn’t happen. She got sicker and never got better. And that’s how I wound up at the funeral today.

I felt like an outsider at first. I only briefly knew her, had a few conversations and never met in real life. I wasn’t Jewish and I had never been to a Jewish funeral. I didn’t know her family or friends (except the one who introduced us). I was worried I didn’t belong among the mourners who had known her for years or their whole lives. I felt like I shouldn’t have been allowed to hear her father’s beautiful words, her young son’s hitching sobs from the front of the room, her cousin’s heartfelt tribute and stories of their youth. But then her cousin mentioned that she had wanted privacy during her illness. She wanted to be remembered as the lively, bright, beautiful soul she was. And that’s when I realized she had let me in to a space that few others had been allowed in, and I felt that I did belong. We didn’t know one another well or for a long time, but we shared the bond that only something traumatic like cancer treatment can forge.

It feels weird to say it, but today was healing for me in a way. Not only because I got to pay my respects to Marcie and her family, but because in my own way I was also paying respect to my other AYA cancer friends who have passed over the years, especially dear Carrington.

When Carrington passed over a year ago, I found out weeks later from a friend of hers who tracked me down on Instagram to tell me. You would think hearing this stranger tell me she knew who I was because Carrington had told her about “the nurse who also had tongue cancer and helped her through” would make me feel good. But I felt awful. I cried until I was sick to my stomach that night because all I could think was “I failed her.” Carrington and I had the same type of cancer, we were both single moms, and we were just a few weeks apart in diagnosis and treatment. When I finally started healing from the Hell that was radiation I had told her “it will get better.” But it never got better for her. Logically, I know that has nothing to do with me. I know I can’t heal people physically and I know she probably needed to hear encouragement during her lowest moments to keep her going. But to me, it felt like I set her up. I told her she would get better and she didn’t. I got better and she didn’t. I got to continue going to my son’s baseball games and watch him grow and she didn’t. Somehow, it all felt like my fault. Why should I be allowed to continue and she not?

Unfortunately, those questions are unanswerable. However, today helped me accept that one day I will also be the one lowered into the ground as my loved ones stand in mourning. One day we all will be there.

When I was leaving the burial today, I found Marcie’s husband and their young son and I tried to introduce myself to him, to let him know she had someone there for her who understood the nuances of what she was going through. I was sobbing, and I could barely get the words out. In that moment, that man who just lost the love of his life and his best friend and didn’t know me from a stranger on the street wrapped his arms around me in the biggest hug and told me “I’m glad you’re here. Keep living your beautiful life.”

I don’t know if he knows how much I needed to hear that. I know he couldn’t have known how those words struck deep and validated so much inside me that needed it.

Today, I went to a funeral and I left giving myself permission to live.

Published by Stef G.

30-something former Critical Care RN, divorced single mom, tongue cancer survivor and empath who is constantly striving to be better than she was yesterday.

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