In 2008, two months before our wedding, a lump appeared on my fiancé’s neck. Living in Washington, DC, that summer, we made our way to Georgetown Hospital, the same hospital where Christoph was completing a chaplaincy program. In a fluorescent-lit room three flights below his rounding floor, the doctor delivered the news: my soon-to-be-spouse had thyroid cancer.
“If you’re going to get cancer, it’s a good one to get” we were told. As if any cancer is good. Fast forward: four surgeries, three years, and two rounds of radiation later, we no longer thought this kind of cancer was good. It was invasive and intrusive. It had interrupted our lives, our brand new marriage, and our hopes for the future. By the spring of 2011, we were exhausted and unsure of our next step.
In the beginning, Christoph and I used words like “battle” or “fight” to describe our approach to the organ-eating cells that were chewing away at his insides. We set out to conquer the disease. Unfortunately for us, our human attempt to “beat” the disease was not working. We needed to modify our approach, to find a new language.
So, we started using the word befriend.
I work as a hospice chaplain. Every day, I sit with people who stare death in the face. Some are already in a place of peace. Others fight, deny, or agonize over what is to come. They are all living grief in real time. We talk through their feelings, we share stories, and we remember together. Over the weeks, or sometimes days, I help them receive death. To name, claim, and honor it. To befriend their grief.
This month, the United States crossed the somber threshold of 1 million deaths from Covid-19. Two years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Yet here we stand, between rising Covid numbers (again) and a finish line that hints of normal. We are leaning toward life, while still grappling with death. We are anxious, and we are grieving.
All of this has made me wonder, can grief be a gift? Is it also possible to befriend?
Looking back to our act of befriending cancer, my husband and I were probably naïve, and certainly desperate. But after three years of anger and anguish over cancer and facing even more treatment, we were willing to try anything. A dialogue was beginning to play out in our heads. We like to think of ourselves as friendly folks. We enjoy a nice conversation, a walk in the park, meeting a new friend. If we befriend cancer, we thought, maybe it won’t have such a grip on us.
If we befriend cancer, we thought, maybe it won’t have such a grip on us.
So, we did. That spring, we started to take cancer on walks with us. We invited her to dinner, even on date night! We let her lie between us in the dark of our bedroom, in the most tender hours when our fears got the best of us. Our pillows wet with tears and our hearts sinking deeper into our chests. What if we’re stuck with this persistent malignance? What if this “good cancer” is really a drawn-out death sentence? Just the same, we chose to stop seeing her as the enemy and instead as one we were learning to accept, to integrate into our lives. Hopefully not forever, but at least for a season. And if forever, well, we’d figure that out too.
We stopped using the language of violence, and instead adopted the language of reception. We talked openly about how this shift was necessary for our emotional health. We leaned into the future with a respect for the disease instead of aversion. Believe me, there were days I could not muster the energy it took to act friendly toward cancer. I was still angry. But befriending helped. It changed my lens; it softened my heart.
My husband is in remission now, though there have been other health challenges. (“In sickness and in health” rings truer with every visit to the doctor.) But now, having reached an unthinkable Covid marker, I again find myself pondering what it means to befriend the disease and the grief that accompanies it.
Grief. So messy and complicated and packed with heartache. It shows us what we have lost, by showing us what we have so deeply loved. It waits in the back of our throats and wells in our tear ducts. It spills over when we least expect it. All it takes is one song or scent, and we are transported back to despair, hopelessness, and loss. Grief stings. Grief lingers.
What does it mean to befriend the disease and the grief that accompanies it?
Over the past two years, we have lost people dearly beloved to us. Parents, grandparents, children, co-workers, friends. We have grieved at the altar of our previous selves and our previous lives. We have mourned the loss of jobs and financial security. Relationships fell apart when we weren’t looking. We have lost. We have suffered. We have shed tears and harbored anger. We have tasted grief.
Befriending cancer might not work for everyone. Befriending grief, or even death, is counter-intuitive. But maybe it’s an opening, another way. A way that doesn’t shut out our honest feelings, but invites them in. A way that honors our denial, anger, and attempts at bargaining. A way that illustrates just how intensely we have loved.
A way that greets grief at the door, sets a place for her at the table, and offers her a cup of hot tea. Or whiskey on the rocks. “Come in,” we might say. “Make your place with me. Let’s be friends, if even for a little while.”