When I was just entering my freshman year of high school, my mom was diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer. The memory is still vivid in my mind — the day we found out, we were planning to see Paul McCartney in concert later that night. Even though we were all heartbroken and downtrodden, my mom insisted that we still go to the concert as a family and enjoy ourselves. It ended up being a really fun memory, and is a testament to her strength and courage.
Roughly two years after her diagnosis, and a hard fought battle against one of the most deadly cancers, the illness finally overtook her. I was 16 years old at the time, and if things weren’t confusing and complicated enough at that age, I was now struggling to figure out what to do and how to deal with the tragic loss that had just occurred in my life. Reflecting on the experience roughly 7 years later, I look back with clarity, wisdom, and motivation to reach out and help others who might find themselves in a similar situation.
The fact of the matter is that as a young person going through something like this, although you may feel like it at times, you are definitely NOT alone — 1 in 7 Americans lose a parent before age 20, according to research by the Comfort Zone Camp. The question is, how do we ensure that young people get the help they need after a tragic loss? And how do we come together, share our untold stories of grief and loss, and collectively lift each other up to heal and grow?
Once you start opening up about your story, you will be amazed at how many people around you, whether they are friends, co-workers, or acquaintances, have gone through something similar. One thing I have learned is that people are great at putting up fronts and masks — someone who may look like they have it all figured out, appearing carefree and void of adversity on the outside, may actually be harboring a deep pain or loss inside. The feeling of uncovering someone’s story, peeling off the layers, and getting down to their true nature and defining character, is incredible. When you hear someone open up and be vulnerable, it becomes contagious and you may feel compelled to share your own demons. Being able to relate, empathize, and REALLY understand others’ past pain and present strength to carry on is where inspiration and connection lie.
There is a reason why wildly popular and successful characters of fiction found in television, film, and literature often experience a tragic loss early in their lives. As an audience, we are able to relate in some way to their adversity. It makes them more human in our eyes, more like “us”. We become their biggest cheerleaders, rooting for them to heal and overcome their grief and prove to us that we can do the same in our own lives. It is time for these depictions within the worlds of fiction and fantasy to manifest themselves in the real world. It is time for us to realize the true power behind our losses and pained pasts, that we can transcend our grief and turn it into the very driving force of our future growth. To come forth as willing agents to share our stories, and tell others that “you can do it too”. To represent the collective strength and hope that have carried generations of our ancestors onward, despite the tragedies they faced of their place and time.