For those of us living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC), death is a topic that comes up a lot. I’ve written before about Death, Death and Hurricanes, Grief, Grief and Love; Love and Grief, and if you’d like to read more about my overall thoughts, please feel free to check out those other writings, but today is about a local friend who died recently.
My friend, Bethany Reeb-Sutherland, was murdered by Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) last Saturday, the 14th of November 2020. I met Bethany through a mutual doctor who connected us because we were both living with MBC. When we were introduced, Bethany had recently been diagnosed with MBC and was attempting to adjust after living for approximately three (3) years believing she was in the clear and “cancer free” after an early stage diagnosis and treatment. When we met, she was reeling and looking for ways to figure out how to live with death as a constant companion and how to fit that reality into the life she’d built. None of her doctors told her to be aware of the possibility of a reoccurrence or a progression to Stage IV, she believed cancer was behind her, so learning of her Stage IV diagnosis was a blow.
Bethany and I discovered that we had many things in common. We both came from a large family, were born about 6 months apart in 1978, came from the mid-West or mid-West adjacent, and were at the top of our respective careers when MBC began to strip so much away. Her sons are very close in age to my boys and, for both of us, leaving our children at such a young age was quite literally the worst thing we could conceive, followed quickly by the grief of leaving husbands and parents and siblings and friends.
That’s not to say that all was roses and sunshine — Bethany and I shared another thing, a good amount of stubbornness and the confidence to want to support our respective positions. We didn’t agree on many things and had many a good debate about one thing or another. And yet, despite or perhaps because of the fact that we were not carbon copies of the other, the shared experience of MBC brought us together in a unique way.
In January of 2020, I visited with Bethany in the hospital and that was the last time I saw her in person. At that point, many on her medical team believed that she would not survive that hospital stay. She did and lived for another nearly eleven (11) months. We didn’t communicate as much in these last few months of her life, but I do know for sure that she treasured all the time she was able to have with her husband and her boys. She took the time she had with both hands and made the best of it, despite the fact that COVID curtailed many of the things she (and many others) wanted to do.
When my Mom and I attended her services last week, we had the opportunity to talk with Bethany’s Husband and her Mom about the end of her life. Two things that Bethany’s Mom shared with us really resonated with me and I want to share them with all of you.
First, Bethany’s Mom said that Bethany LIVED. Her life expectancy may have been cut short and she didn’t get to do all that she’d hoped, but she excelled, she worked hard, and she used all the time she was given to live the way she wanted to. That translated into a lot of traveling and time with her family, as well as a firm and full commitment to her students. Bethany never forgot her students and her Mom told us about a notebook still open beside her bed containing a list of the students who were struggling with one thing or another and told us that Bethany was probably mad that she didn’t get to finish mentoring those students who looked to her for guidance. Bethany never gave up, she used all the time given to her, and earned her rest.
Secondly, Bethany’s Mom said that its never too late to reconcile with those you love. Petty jealousies or hurt in the past all fell away when Bethany was diagnosed and expressed her love for her family. We all think that we have the time to resolve issues with those in our families later, but when a terminal diagnosis enters the story of a family, that does and should change things.
I read a book recently, The Book of Two Ways: A Novel, by Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite authors of all time. This novel was about a death doula (among other things) and she quotes a variety of other authors in laying out the five (5) things that are the most important to say at the end of life. Those things are:
- I forgive you.
- Please forgive me.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
I would submit that the first four (4) are the most important things to say regardless of whether one’s life is ending, but the importance does increase when there is less time. Holding onto grudges or hurt or whatever else that people hold on to isn’t healthy for the person holding onto the issue and for those of us who have truncated life expectancies, it is devastating.
I’m thankful that Bethany got to have the conversations she needed to have as her life came to an end and I’m thankful she was able to reconnect with people in her life that she needed to. It’s a good reminder for us all, whether we are sick or not, that life can change (and often does) in an instant, so don’t put off the conversations you need to have with those you love.
Every time we lose someone in the MBC Community, it affects the rest of us. It’s hard to often articulate how hard that is for the rest of us in the Community who are watching to see how things might go for us. The word “Triggered” just isn’t big enough to explain how hard it is. I will probably write more about this later since this is all pretty raw for me right now.
Just remember, Grief is not linear and everyone carries it differently.
Rest In Peace, Bethany. You will be missed by so many. May your memory be a blessing to all who knew you and love you and for others who are looking for how to navigate this living while dying thing. You’ve earned your rest.