Kate Bigam
September 04, 2014 12:14 pm

It’s been a year and a half since my friend Elissa died after a long journey with Lymphoma. “Journey?” I can hear you asking, “Don’t you mean ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ or ‘struggle’?” Those are the words most commonly associated with living with terminal illness, especially one as vicious as cancer.

But Elissa didn’t like the militarized language so frequently associated with having cancer. She once wrote, “What is valiant about fighting (there’s that term again. . .) for your own life?” She preferred the word “journey,” which she said was “neither inherently positive or negative and implies stops and lessons along the way.” Yeah, Elissa was pretty insightful. An activist, social justice advocate, and rabbi-to-be, she fit more meaning into her 29 years than most people do in triple that amount of time.

Ultimately, Elissa’s journey came to an early end—but for those of us who survive and miss her, the lessons along the way continue. Here are five vital, life-altering lessons I’ve learned since my friend’s death, and whether you knew her or not, I hope you’ll find value in them, too.

1. I began to focus on the people who matter most

After Elissa’s passing, I began to wonder how certain friends would be affected by my own death. It may seem morbid, but it helped me figure out who meant the most to me and vice versa. As a result, I went on a Facebook defriending spree, getting rid of 400 “friends” who I wasn’t close to and silencing the noise so I could pay more attention to the people I care about.

2. I said “yes” to spending time with the people I love

The day of Elissa’s funeral, I went through our texts and emails and found repeated instances of her inviting me to hang out . .and of me saying no. Sometimes I had legitimate conflicts, but most times, I was just too tired/anxious/work-obsessed/whatever to make the effort. I don’t remember the reasons I bailed on Elissa, but I do remember the fun times with her. Since then, I’ve started making plans and following through with them, even when I don’t feel like it—because I don’t ever want to look back on messages from a friend and think, “If only I hadn’t been so lazy.”

3. I started to care about the world

Elissa dedicated her to life to bettering the lives of others by working on issues such as women’s health, LGBT equality, reproductive choice, work rights, and immigration reform. Bettering the world was her professional aspiration and her personal passion, and she was relentless in her pursuit of social justice. Since her death, I’ve made a more concerted effort to keep up with current events, educate myself on important issues, and advocate for the causes I believe in.

4. I embraced YOLO

I know the YOLO trend is played out, but the concept behind it—”You only live once”—is worth remembering. A line of poetry from writer Mary Oliver goes, “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it life?” We may only get one shot at life, but so few of us make conscious attempts to live the best version of that one shot. We let ourselves get bogged down by excuses (lack of money and time, chief among them). Of course, the “best version” looks different for each of us, but for me, it’s meant traveling more, pushing my boundaries, and taking a closer look at what I want out of my relationships and my career. I also have a number of fun, adventure-focused plans in the works: skydiving, glass-blowing, new tattoo? Workin‘ on ’em. Elissa’s death taught me to figure out what the best version of my life looks like and to pursue it.

5. I set my intentions on finding happiness

Elissa tried her darndest to be happy, actively seeking a lifestyle that contributed to that happiness. I’m less sure than she was of what makes me happy, but I’m trying to figure it out. I know I want to do things because I want to do them, because they’re important to me, and because I choose to do them. I want to find the things that make me truly happy and make that lifestyle my reality.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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