I recently read the eloquent and wise words of author Sheryl Sandberg, strung together in the making of her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy. I read each word with what seemed to be a deep understanding of her reality.
But she was writing about life after losing her husband, the father of her two children, and friend to many. How could I understand? I have not lost my partner. I do not yet know grief in the way that she describes. Still, her words reminded me to the words of my cancer peers. And her words, they made me feel like I do when I am surrounded by my young adult cancer community.
I made more sense when I read her words: “To join a community after tragedy, we often have to accept our new — and often unwelcome — identity.”
That was it, I could confirm my connection. I did understand her pain. Our pains were not the same, but I understood her words as if they were messages and lessons pulled from my own life stories.
Daily life without a true deeper connection
A few years ago, I fell into a thriving community that understood my story. I met other young adults living with cancer. In many cases, our connection as young individuals having heard the words “you have cancer” was so profound that connection was existent without even the exchange of any words.
At the same time, I was spending most of my days existing in a world where connection was difficult for me. To me, no one seemed capable of really understanding what I was going through.
It was especially difficult to reconcile with the imagined reality that my closest family and friends would never quite understand me. I felt sentenced to a life alone, burdened by a cancer experience I had never asked to live — the trade-off for the safety of my loved ones.
It was difficult to then read Sandberg’s words. They gave me the ability to realize that I didn’t need to carry anything. I lived in the world where everyone could understand the pain I was carrying as well as the effort it takes to carry these tragic stories in our busy world.
A longing for deeper connection
I was heartbroken by this new understanding that my narrowed view of the world had prevented me from connecting more deeply with those I loved. My stories seemed so heavy and took up so much space in my life that I had been limited to seeing only my pain.
I had never given the opportunity for others to connect. Even though, many had certainly wanted to. I had clearly made a mistake (or rather mistakes), a faux pas.
This was my opportunity to learn from this mistake. In seeing the world from a different angle, this time unobstructed by my own stories, I felt ready to show up.
I wanted to show up for others, especially those I loved.
It has not been easy, showing up involves someone being vulnerable. It requires individuals to ask hard questions and break down the societal norms associated with being “okay.” But I did take steps to lean into vulnerability.
I started asking, “How are you REALLY doing?”
I started practising, allowing silence the space it deserves.
I started being, living in the present without a sense of urgency.
These weren’t gigantic steps, but they did allow me to bring down my walls (and quiet my ego) to allow for connection.
This has paid off in many ways. I have had some of the most valuable and interesting conversations with individuals I thought I knew very well. I was given the privilege to show up for them in real and honest ways.
And, in learning to show up for others, I was showing up for myself. I was taking one more step towards being kind in my experience with cancer.