How do you live after saying goodbye?

“Why am I the one who survived?”

Such a natural and heart-wrenching question.

“Why did she die, and I didn’t?”

My CML friend searched my face for an answer, tears streaming down her face. We were standing outside of a funeral home after a service celebrating the life of a fellow CML’er Nancy Whyte, who passed away after complications following a stem cell transplant. Sitting in the chapel, a few rows behind her family, we had watched Nancy’s husband’s bent shoulders heaving forward as he openly sobbed for his loss, singing Nancy’s favourite Kenny Rogers song to her closed flower-covered casket as our hearts broke right along with his.

It’s always hard to lose someone you care about, but there is something innately terrifying when that someone had lived a similar experience to yours. Losing them reaches deep into your being, and suddenly you are back to a time when all you could think about was your own funeral, picturing your loved ones sitting in the front row of a chapel, their shoulders heaving with grief.

And while yesterday, these thoughts were safely locked away – not gone though, they are never gone – today, they come back with a vengeance. Because as you say goodbye, you are reminded of what could be. Sometimes it’s not images, but just a feeling of deep nothingness somewhere in your chest that makes it hard to breathe. It is from this darkness that comes the question: Why her and not me?

This feeling is horrible and painful, and often signals the beginning of a spiral of guilt, self-doubt and fear – all of which is very common and very normal among survivors of traumatic events, which include a life-threatening health diagnosis like cancer. In fact, it even has a name. Survivor’s guilt, or survivor syndrome refers to the belief that one is not worthy of survival. It also describes the emotional turmoil of feeling relief and appreciation for surviving at the same time as experiencing guilt and shame for having these feelings when others have not survived.

So how is it that my friend and I were the ones standing outside the funeral home that day with glorious summer sunshine warming our faces, and not Nancy?

You might call it luck, or fate. Or maybe you believe a higher power has kept us on this earth. For others, it may come down to pure science – maybe we are younger, stronger, have good genes, our cancer is different, our medication is newer, our disease was less advanced, or maybe very advanced and required speedier intervention…Or maybe it just is.

The truth is we don’t know why some die and some don’t. The way I see it, those of us still standing need to change the question, for ourselves, but also for those we have lost.

Instead of “Why am I alive and not her?” let’s take a moment to recognize the wonder of still being here. Feel the warmth of the summer sun. Comfort those who have lost. Speak for those who can’t. Maybe we can come around to seeing that perhaps the real question is not so much a question as it is a declaration: “I am here today, so what I am I going to do about it?”

Living with one of this century’s most feared diseases is terrifying. Saying goodbye to those it steals away from us? Devastating. And surviving while others don’t? Sometimes the most difficult to accept.

But survive we have, at least for today. So what are you going to do?

 

Nancy Carmella Whyte       1953 – 2019

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