How to grieve the loss of a friend who wouldn’t want me to be sad

I am not sure how to begin, but that is the funny thing about grief. Your brain is throwing around so many words, yet you have no idea which ones to pick and use. It’s like when you see balls tossed around in those machines when the lottery happens on TV.

As I write this, it’s been only hours since I learned that my friend died.

You’re probably wondering, how can you know what to say right now? Here again is grief’s odd sense of humor — when you want to keep quiet, you also become extremely verbose. I find as I talk to people, I’m trying to self-edit because I want to be mindful of their time. But it’s not even been 24 hours, and I’m graciously being given the benefit of the doubt. I want to tell you about my friend, though, because her light shined as big and bright as the state she was from. She had a very rare form of cancer, but she never let it own her. She was the boss, not the cancer.

My friend had a name, Ana-Alecia.

It is so weird putting that in past tense.

She was a remarkable young woman. I met her when I joined an online fitness group put together by a former contestant on The Bachelor. Sorry, give me a moment while I laugh quietly at that…it’s kind of funny that that’s how we met — but that is how we met. Not too far into a new 30-Day Challenge, Ana-Alecia felt that something wasn’t right with her body, at first thinking it was due to eating too much at Thanksgiving.

And then she told us the news, it was the Big C. Cancer. I recall looking through her Facebook page, and the pictures of her young daughter and her husband, and just thinking, “Good grief, they’re all so young.”

I messaged her about Gilda’s Club and the chapter in Toronto I have become so familiar with. She told me there was a chapter in Dallas, and she went there for comfort when her own dad lost his fight. That is how our friendship started. Soon after her diagnosis, I learned my first love, James, had cancer — and the prognosis wasn’t good. I cried a lot that month, and these virtual fitness friends of mine wrapped their wings around me, Ana-Alecia especially.

She added him to her prayers, and to be honest, she did more than she needed to despite our geography. I had to wonder, Who is this woman?!

She was not in the best of health — and yet, the light she had just beamed where it was needed. Like Batwoman.

As the months went on, I came to think of Ana-Alecia as a superhero — so the Batwoman reference isn’t really that far-fetched. With all of the ups and downs she was experiencing, when James passed away in April last year, she was among the first of my friends to ask if I needed to talk. When we did, I remember wanting to be careful in my words as to not add to her fears. As I expressed fears upon leaving for the first for an exciting work project (shooting my documentary), she assured me I was doing James proud,  that he’d watch out for me.

I forgot at times that she was sick, until she posted about her chemo treatments…and her chemo dance parties. Perhaps you’ve seen one.

Along with her friend, Daneille, Ana-Alecia danced to “Juju on that Beat” as chemo was pumped into her.

My friend was adamant to not let cancer define her.

That video was seen by millions of people.

Ellen DeGeneres even brought them on her show to praise them, and to give Ana-Alecia a platform to show the world the power of positive thinking.

In between hospital visits, good days, and relapses, we found time to connect — our friendship put on hold only while our respective baseballs teams battled it out in the playoffs. I never thought for a second that cancer would win, because she kept asking if I’d met anyone special, and I’d tell her the latest text a guy I’d met online had sent me.

My friend had the ability to focus on the positive, no matter what the predicament — a quality I really admired because that’s not always easy to do. The last time I heard from her was on New Year’s Eve, on Instagram, telling me how CUUUUUTE I looked in my dress (in a picture I initially feared “showed too much boob.”) But my beautiful friend thought I was beautiful, and that made me happy.

When I learned yesterday that she was gone, I disconnected for a few minutes — from myself and the office birthday party I was attending. My breath left me as I put two and two together.

I’ve often thought that while not everyone can understand the pain of childbirth, we can all understand the pain of grief. But as a dear friend would remind me, every day that you can tell your story is a good day.

Yes, my friend is gone, but she would likely be the first one to remind me lots of wonderful things are still happening around me. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to cry today, but there are also as many reasons to laugh and dance and be grateful.

If Ana-Alecia Ayala’s ability to dance through cancer inspired you, then you can help her family here.

Kelly Aija Zemnickis is a native of Montréal and an accomplished playwright and producer. Her first play “How Does a Drug Deal Become a Decent 3rd Date?” toured across North America, making its Off-Off Broadway debut as part of the NYC Frigid Theatre Festival (2009). Kelly is also a stand-up comic, and she is currently producing her first documentary, “No Responders Left Behind” alongside Paradox Pictures. Kelly frequently muses on her lack of a love-life (and her love of food!) on her blog, Marriage & the Single Girl. Although allergic to cats, Kelly is not allergic to cat sweaters. She owns a few. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing for HelloGiggles here.

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