Updated: Oct 13, 2020
It's been almost one year since my 14 hour surgery combo chemo procedure for recurrent ovarian cancer. It feels like a lifetime ago and yesterday all at once. I can suppress the scariest moments and then they come flooding in, usually at two in the morning. Since then, three of my friends, who also had ovarian cancer, died. My ex-husband died. The hardest loss has been the death of Ginger, my 12-year old Golden Retriever. I still can't think of her without crying (insert tears running down my face as I type).
Since then, a pandemic has swept the planet. The losses are cumulating. In the midst of all of this tragedy, I'm trying to swim to the surface. I'm trying to catch my breath. I'm trying to tread water. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tired. I'm tired. What I'm realizing in the face of all of this loss is that I am feeling pretty confident that I can handle my own stuff. I'm getting pretty good at managing my fears, my disappointments, my struggle and my pain. My heart breaks when I lose someone or something I love. It's selfish, really. I feel abandoned, left alone to navigate life's hard moments. There is something disorienting about being a relatively young person and losing so many people that I love in a short period of time. These relationships tethered me. They gave me a sense of direction. Through their eyes, I could see myself. Now that they are gone, I'm not sure what I see.
Here's what I've decided to do. I'm going to pretend that I am not middle-aged but instead that I am old-aged. All of a sudden, all of this loss including my own impeding death now make more sense. If I were 80 years old, I wouldn't be so outraged that so many of my friends are dying. Of course, I would be sad and reflective. Yet, I'd like to think I would be more accepting. I'd also like to believe that I would be more accepting of my sooner then later death. At 80 years old, I would appreciate the long life I have lived and be grateful for any more time that may come my way.
This is not a new idea. John Leland wrote a book titled, "Happiness is a Choice You Make. Lessons from a year among the oldest old." Here are four things he learned from our elders:
1. Do Things that Make You Happy.
Seems obvious right? It is. Then why aren't more people making this a priority? Younger people tend to spend energy on getting rid of what doesn't make them happy. It's a common sentiment to believe that you will only be happy if that thing were different. Older people know that life has its challenges and they focus on what makes them happy anyway.
2. Express Gratitude.
Yep. That again. It's everywhere. Express gratitude. Why? Because it works. And, it's not about celebrating achievements and the endless pursuit of wants and needs. It's about appreciating what's right in front us right now. I personally find celebrating the smallest things the most rewarding, like the warm sun on my skin, the taste of a fresh strawberry or the sound of my cat purring.
3. Find Purpose.
What inspires you? What makes you want to get out of bed everyday? Research shows that older folks who pursue their passions are happier. Again, this is not about achieving status and looking for purpose/meaning through other's eyes. It's yours and yours alone.
4. Double Down on Good Relationships.
In Leland's book, older people did not talk about work or the obstacles they have overcome. They didn't mention the stuff they had accumulated. They found joy in their relationships. So, spend more time investing in people and less time investing in things.
From now on, I will think of myself as a grateful, content, peaceful and mostly happy 80-something year old woman, not a 50-something year old woman with end-stage cancer. I like this version of the story better.