Thursday, February 8, 2018

Sometimes It’s Just Sadness

My grandfather died yesterday morning.

Bumpy was 92. Almost 92 ½. He lived a “good life.” He was loved by many.

He was loved by me.

I’m used to raging against the premature death of friends from the monster that is cancer but now I sit here simultaneously sad and yet acutely aware of, and incredibly grateful for, the fact my grandfather had the opportunity many are never afforded – time. 
I am grateful he had 92 years on this planet.
He had TIME to find a life partner. He had TIME to have children. He had TIME to see his grandchildren grow and even TIME to see his great-grandchildren grow. He had TIME for adventure. He had TIME for travel. He had TIME for hobbies.

And, at the end, he felt he had too much time. 

He was ready to go. He had more time than Grammy. He had more time than his friends. He had more time than either his body or his mind could manage.

With advancing dementia and retreating physical ability, he was frustrated and, at times, sad.
Having visited with him in December, I am aware that he had absolutely no desire to reach 93.
In other words, I know that Bumpy lived a long life and died a peaceful, natural death but I am still feeling a loss.

And a sadness.

This may seem like a no-brainer to many people, “Duh, your grandfather just died. Of COURSE you feel sad.” But my brain is telling me I need to stay in the “grateful for a long life space”. My brain is reminding me that everything and everyone dies. 

My brain is actually kicking me under the table hissing, “You are being selfish; his quality of life was poor and he was suffering.” Granted, the brain talk is having some effect since my sadness is not the devastation I feel when a young mother dies of cancer or the devastation I feel when cancer kills another friend before she can celebrate her 40th birthday, but it remains a pervasive sadness nonetheless.

Normally, when a friend dies, I just mull through my emotions until they channel me toward action. I would process my grief by typing, exercising, intellectualizing and allowing myself a maximum of 15 minutes of crying the shower.  I would think about the support I need/want/deserve but I would refrain from reaching out to avoid burdening others with my sorrow until I was strong enough to hold theirs.  

In this case, I began to belittle my own grief by reminding myself “this isn’t about you, Stace” and reminding myself to be grateful for the nine plus decades of time he had on this planet.

And then I did something wildly different.

I actually told people that my grandfather died.

I told people that I was sad.

I reached out to a handful of people that I knew wouldn’t freak out with niceties or try and blow perfume up my arse but instead would offer just the head nod, the warm embrace, the validation and the grounding that I felt I needed.

(My gratitude to you circle of peeps is immense. Truly.)

This time I shared my grief by reaching out. Instead of worrying about the burden my tears placed on other people, I allowed myself to be vulnerable, even needy. This new approach meant hours of fielding phone calls and sharing grief and gratitude with friends and family.

Sometime around noon I realized I was actually navigating my grief rather than pretending it’s not on my roadmap. And I’m crowdsourcing my support.

And yet. Something was stuck. Something felt amiss.

At the end of the afternoon, I was grateful but still sad.

And confused. 

I felt I had already recognized my emotions but still felt that stuck feeling. 

I felt at a loss for what to do next.

And then while sharing some of my fonder New England memories with a sage co-worker, I felt that flood of emotion again, “I just feel sad,” I said.

His reply was soft and his eyes were filled with compassion. “Well then just sit with that,” he suggested.

I crooked my mouth (and probably my eyes and head) thinking, “Hey, that’s what I say to other people. How are you using my own words on me? And, oh by the way, I HAVE been sitting with it. For like eight hours.”

Instead I said, in all honesty, “But I’m used to this sadness triggering something else. Triggering something for me to do. I’m not used to staying in the sadness emotion. I'm used to channeling my sadness into action.”

Instantly I recognized that the premature death of friends has been a driving force in what I choose to do day-to-day with my advocacy work. Advocacy work wrecks me and fuels me - mostly at the same time.

But Bumpy’s death? The loss of my last living grandparent? The loss of a man who regularly had a smile on his face, a witty comment on his tongue and could make just about anything with a jigsaw, hammer and nails? The loss of a man who for many years, I thought was the tallest man on Earth? The loss of a man whose mantra (with a wife and four daughters) was “Yes Dear.”? The peaceful timely death of my grandfather who, by his own admission, had enough TIME on the planet? 

Bumpy’s death leaves an enormous gap, feels like a tremendous loss and catalyzes an enormous wave of memories but there no rage. No anger. No motivation.  

“There are no stages!” I thought to myself.

Typically I feel myself going through all the seven stages of grief. Quite frankly, on an average day, I feel like I’m living in all seven stages simultaneously. And then I move onto the action part of my personal grief roadmap.

But for me, when a good man dies a good death at an advanced age, there is really no room for shock or denial. When your 92 year old grandfather has a DNR in place and his quality of life is being reduced by the limitations of his body and dementia, there is simply no need for bargaining or anger when he peacefully takes his last breath. There is only room for fond memories, tremendous gratitude and sadness that seems to want to hang around for awhile.


My grandfather died yesterday morning.

Bumpy was 92. Almost 92 ½. He lived a “good life.” He was loved by many.

He was loved by me.

I am grateful. But I’m still sad.

And now I’m gonna sit with that for a bit.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Full Circle in Five Years

I was gluing green ‘fish scales’ onto a long black felt singlet when the phone rang on January 16, 2013.

A cell phone call from my mom, at nearly 9pm was unlikely to be good news but I made no real assumptions.

“I have breast cancer,” she said.

There were no auditory tears and there was no catch in her voice. She was matter-of-fact in her sharing of this information. But it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Within a week I would request a leave of absence from my job in Silicon Valley. Over the next few weeks, I would investigate breast cancer diagnoses, treatments and prognoses online. I would find #bcsm and #lcsm on Twitter. I would learn about TDM staging and the difference between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. I would read about BRCA mutations and check out books written by previvors.

Not even a month after my mom’s diagnosis, I would fly to Texas to visit with her surgeon at the lumpectomy post-op appointment and learn first hand about the devastation in hearing the words, “We didn’t get clean margins.”

And then her chemo began, and I made another trip to Texas for the obligatory shave the head event (and dye my hair with a pink streak).

Mere weeks later I would receive my own cancer diagnosis.

The trajectory from that date five years ago to today has been dizzying and surreal. I knew from the very first day after my own diagnosis that something good had to come out of the shitstorm that is a mother-daughter diagnosis. And yet I don’t really believe things “happen for a reason.”

Instead I believe “things happening creates a reason.”

I never returned to my job.

Instead I accidently created a new one.

I began consulting quite by accident when someone, after a lengthy conversation regarding gaps in the healthcare system morphed into my ideas around building scalable, repeatable models of patient engagement. And then he asked me what my hourly rate was.

In the years since, I have become a vocal voice for health education, true shared decision making and patient engagement across the cancer continuum. I have elbowed my way into medical conferences to learn the latest in research, treatments and outcomes. I’ve brought the reality of survivorship to those in digital health and diagnostic testing. I’ve advocated for a transformation to a proactive, wellness-based healthcare system from our reactive, illness-based system. I have shared my experiences far and wide - sometimes as the token patient on a stage filled with providers and sometimes as a voice representing a whole community. I’ve spent time on Capitol Hill advocating for policies that support the short and long term needs unique to people with a cancer diagnosis. I’ve connected people to knowledge and people to organizations and amazing people to amazing people. And, most importantly, I’ve met some of the most amazing, brilliant and driven advocates that I’m now proud to call my friends.

And today, exactly five years to the day after I received that phone call, I am joining a mission-based start-up company intent on changing the dynamic for cancer patients and their community of caregivers via a combination of empathy and expertise.

I suppose it’s not accurate to say that “I’ve come full circle” since, in all honesty, the circle I’d become accustomed to legitimately blew apart on that day five years ago.

But I do feel circle-like today. A single devastating phone call was not the end but rather the beginning. Today I feel whole. I feel complete. And, most of all, I feel deeply grateful.