By Joanna Mechlinski
Recently my co-worker Kim passed away from leukemia. We were devastated, of course; but even more, we were shocked. Kim was a fighter. It was her second bout with the disease in three years and she’d beat it before. This time things seemed to be taking a bit longer, but it was understandable, given the toll her body was under the first time. But Kim had undergone a long-awaited bone marrow transplant in June and things seemed promising. If there were days I would text her and it seemed to take a long time for her response, I still didn’t worry. After all, there are always setbacks on the road to recovery, right?
So it was a horrific shock the Sunday morning another co-worker called me with the news. I literally could not wrap my brain around it. How could the always laughing and active Kim, the one I had just sent my usual text messages to, be gone? She was only 56 years old. She was supposed to get better. All of this was just a small setback against the big picture of her life.
At work the following week, the bleak atmosphere was almost tangible. Employees tried to console each other as best they could, of course. For days, I kept hearing people say things like “She’s in a better place” and “She isn’t suffering anymore.”
This really set me contemplating. Lots of people – too many people, really – experience serious illness during their lives. Some people, like Kim, experience it intensely but during a limited period. Others, such as myself, might often feel like they’re about to die from pain or other symptoms, but they know that isn’t actually the case. Their suffering may last years, even decades. Why? What’s the difference? Is it preferable to be faced with a life-threatening disease but to know that if you beat it you’re likely to be done with it? Or is it better to endure a myriad of symptoms for years without an end in sight, but know that you’re likely to remain alive?
What does it say about me as a person that I’m even mulling the pros and cons of two scenarios that most objective individuals would consider equally horrible?
In either case, many people I know have expressed the belief that there is a purpose behind it – a purpose behind just about everything that happens. Usually this is grounded in some sort of faith; but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it may just be the very human need to make sense of things, to believe that our suffering isn’t worthless. We can make it through whatever life throws at us, if only we believe it’s helpful to someone in some way, be it inspiration, consolation or anything in between.
Yet religious or not, I believe just about all of us dealing with chronic pain have hoped for a miracle at some point. Whether or not we would actually admit it aloud, it’s an understandable wish. Who wouldn’t want their old life back, a life where you could move freely and live your life without being limited by pain? Being told that there is little or nothing that can be done for your condition is difficult to believe.
I don’t claim to have the answers. But the good news is, neither does anyone else. We are all free to believe whatever makes sense or gives us comfort. Even better, we are free to change our minds about what we believe at any time. Who knows? Maybe the purpose is whatever we need it to be.
Joanna Mechlinski is a former newspaper reporter who now works in education. She is a lifelong Connecticut resident, avid reader and animal lover who has battled several chronic illnesses since her early twenties.