What Do You Do When Your World Falls Apart?

Dad

My father was the original health nut.

Diagnosed with pre-diabetes in his thirties, he went on a personal crusade to prevent illness from attacking him or his family.

One day, we were eating TV dinners and spreading a thick layer of salt on our Salisbury steaks. The next day, salt was banned from our table, sugar-containing products removed from our home, and beef became a special event food.

My father began jogging regularly, took up meditation and stress-reduction, and read new, earth-shattering books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet.

During the week, my father was a blue suit, white shirt wearing accountant. On the weekends, he donned Earth shoes and dungarees while he made his own granola with nuts, oats and honey.

It was the early 1970s.

He had his moments of breaking from his healthy lifestyle, but for the next thirty years, he continued to jog regularly, eat carefully, limit his stress, and research how to stay healthy and live a long life.

Mom

My mother, while not particularly interested in the whole health culture, respected my father’s theories and supported the health practices that he did on his own and that he insisted upon in our household. She stopped buttering vegetables and often cooked chicken with the skin removed. She put up with his smelly running shoes and sweaty laundry. She even started walking around the block with him at night to get her own daily exercise.

For the next thirty years, she lived a much healthier life than she’d known before my father went on his crusade. She didn’t do it perfectly either, but she tried her best and she never went back to convenience foods as a staple in her diet.

She also took care of her health in a different way. She followed recommendations that most of us ignore. Despite her not loving doctors’ appointments, she met with her general doctor and her ob/gyn for full physicals annually, and she religiously went to the hospital for her annual mammogram.

A + B Doesn’t Always Equal C

Why do I tell you all this about my parents’ health habits?

Because I am angry.

Even I, a constant critic of the ever-changing, get healthy, self-help culture, began to believe that if only I do what I am supposed to do, I will get the results I am supposed to get. I began to see the complexities of daily living in a woman’s magazine way. I became comfortable in the fact that my parents would live long and healthy lives because they took care of their bodies and minds.

But A + B doesn’t always equal C. We don’t always get the results we expect just because we follow the rules laid out by the establishment.

Reality Bites

Seven years ago, my health nut father died of kidney cancer.

Seven days ago, my rule-following, doctor-visiting mother was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer.

In our extended family, over many generations, cancer has not been a primary cause of death. We are not one of those families at high risk for this disease. Neither of my parents showed obvious symptoms or had their illnesses diagnosed by doctors until their cancers had already metastasized. My parents’ cancers came without warning.

The point of all of this is not to say “Woe is me.” I don’t know a single person who has not been affected by this horrible disease in one way or another: they’ve lost a family member or friend or contracted cancer themselves. I recognize that the world is full of stories of people inflicted by diseases that either kill them or make their lives incredibly difficult. I know many who have lost once perfectly healthy family members or friends to accidents or substance abuse problems or mental illness. Suffering and pain and death exist always, impact our lives.

I’m putting this down because I am trying to make sense out of something I simply cannot get my head around.

I keep thinking about the philosophy class I took in college and the first time I came across the Myth of Sisyphus. We read an essay by Albert Camus that compares the absurdity of our lives with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.

The following comes from the Wikepedia summary of Camus’ essay:

It is not the world that is absurd, nor human thought: the absurd arises when the human need to understand meets the unreasonableness of the world, when “my appetite for the absolute and for unity” meets “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.

And, another quote from this entry:

If the world were clear, art would not exist.

This gives me great comfort. I am somebody who has always struggled with the realities of our existence, and I am forever in debt to my family, my mother in particular, for sharing with me her love of art in all of its forms, because I have come to realize over the years that the one thing that truly transports me from these daily struggles is my love for and appreciation of art, music, literature, theater.

I wonder what the rest of you do to make peace with your world when you find it falling apart. Please share in the comments section of this post. Maybe we can all help each other.

Sara

Sara

I write about daily life, arts & culture, food, books, nature, animals, parenting, relationships, self-discovery, & more.

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34 thoughts on “What Do You Do When Your World Falls Apart?

  1. Sara
    Once again you have hit the nail squarely on the head. Hope your Moms recovery is swift and uneventful! Good music laughter and conversation always help me get through the tough times. Keep up the good work!!

    1. Thanks Dave. Laughter is another big one for me. For a family going through so much right now, we have been laughing a whole lot.

  2. Sara, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s illness.

    My father, too, was a healthy-living advocate (loved to commute to work on his bicycle and go for long rides on the weekends, walked often, ate well) who died, young, of stomach cancer.

    For a long time I directed my anger at the unfairness of it at the doctors, who I felt had mismanaged his case. That may even be true, but as with your parents, his cancer was way too far advanced by the time they caught it. Whatever they did, they couldn’t have saved him.

    Grief hit me hard, but I found comfort in the outdoors (something he loved and I do as well), and eventually I wrote a cathartic, barely-fictionalized short story. Writing always does wonders for my mental health — fiction, not so much journalling, though you may find otherwise. And, of course, rereading your favourite books, listening to your favourite music (I see Simon & Garfunkel in your tags), and treating yourself gently.

    Sending good thoughts and vibes your way.

    1. Writing helps me too but sometimes it is too hard for me because it brings my emotions to the surface in a way few other things do. Nature is also such a natural healer. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Oh Sara, I am so sorry you are going through such sadness and difficulty. My dad is a cancer survivor of two separate cancers. We currently have several friends dealing with incurable cancers and another with a poorly understood but equally catastrophic illness. It is an overwhelming time.
    I will share a few things I have learned from my own journey with friends and family going through difficult times. During the hardest times and worst moments, it helps break the days into smaller parts you have just have to get through. Set small goal and celebrate getting beyond them. This is a journey. The most difficult, but as necessary as all of our journeys in life. Always be thankful for even the smallest things. Keep your sense of humor, specially in the hospital where you have so little control. My grandmother cracked a joke within a few hours of her death. It was refreshing to laugh rather than cry. She had me and my dad laughing even in the face of our loss of her. What a wonderful gift and what a wonderful moment to remember.

    The following prayer has helped me immensely in the past few years:
    Saint Theresa’s Bookmark
    Let nothing disturb thee
    Nothing affright thee
    All things are passing
    God never changes
    Patient endurance attains to all things
    Whom God possesses in nothing is wanted
    Alone, God suffices.

    Know you are not alone. It might not help now, but will help as you look, back, reflect, grieve and heal. You will be strengthened by these experiences.

    Peace and blessings to you and your entire family.

    MaryAnn

  4. Hi Sara,

    My dad was not a health nut, he had a stressful job and for exercise he played golf and did yard work. He was concerned about his health but the one procedure he put off was an upper GI, he had constant heartburn. At the age of 56 he died of stomach and esophageal cancer. His father also died of esophageal cancer and I wonder if that is the reason he put off the upper GI. But his dying crumbled my world. I had a very hard time with his death. I was so angry that god took him away and could not understand why. But I found that is wasted energy, I look back on the time we had and the wonderful dad that he was and always will be. And I realize how so very lucky I am to have had a dad like him I also found that exercise was and is a great way alleviate a lot of my stress and it helps to clear my mind. Lean on your friends we are here to help you get through this and anything else life might have in store.

    Love you Sara and sending lots of prayers and good thought your way. Always here for you!

  5. We always try to understand these things, but it is not possible. The best we can hope for is a peace that comes with knowing we and they did everything possible to live as long as they did. Cancer is an evil disease, and it is no respecter of persons. My first husband was a health nut, a jogging-walking nut, and all around good, caring person and father, but kidney cancer slammed in and took him only 30 days after diagnosis and at age 59. Too young. He lives in our memories…which have probably made him more “god-like”!
    I pray for strength and peace for you, and the same for your precious mom.

  6. They say ‘the devil is in the details’, and I think that applies here. It’s the details – the art, the music, the stories, the experiences that trap you in a moment and make you aware of the greatness around you. I hope that you and your mother experience as many of those moments for as long as possible.
    Take care…

  7. Sara, thank you for your truth-telling. I appreciate your courage to write and share–it inspires me to do the same. Claiming anger is good, throwing eggs against a wall can help (if you can get over feeling like it’s wasteful –I couldn’t 🙂 — dancing in a living room alone, talking to yourself on a long walk–ideally with a goofy dog–asking for companionship. take care.

  8. The older we get the more we have to accept that we can’t ask why and expect a good answer. Through the hardship of life we are forced to learn that there arent reasons for the loss of a loved one, a sickness, or any other difficult event. I have found myself saying the famous words “It is just meant to be”….or “there has to be a reason” and I wait and wait for its meaning. I have come to the conclusion that we have to have hardship in order to gain strength. Some people experience more traumatic events in their life then others. Are they stronger? YES! Are they able to see that the little things in life are so much more important and get satisfaction from them? YES! Also, there are different levels of hard times …the smaller ones prepare us for the larger ones.
    Be strong Sara, for yourself and for your family. Sending positive thoughts your way for You, your Mom and your family. <3

    1. Well said Michele. I’m so glad to have had the chance to reconnect with you at reunion. We’re trying to take it one day at a time. 🙂

  9. Thank you for sharing your heart with all of us. It’s okay to be angry…let it flow. You have a great network of support from near and far. Hang in there–we’re all thinking of you. Hugs.

  10. This breaks my heart, Sara.

    Because there is never a satisfactory explanation, I don’t try to understand why impossible things happen, as much as I strive to endure these emotional landmines.

    Two losses in particular have shaken me to my roots–my little sister’s death at age 22, and a beloved nephew at 21. Teri has been gone 23 years, and Justin 10–both victims of circumstance rather than illness. Regardless, pain is pain is pain. The anger just as raw regardless of what put it there.

    My survival tactics are prayer and writing. I grab hold of my faith with both hands and I throw everything else into my pages. It’s not so much a conscious thing as it just happens. My fictional characters are made to carry my load so I can go about the business of healing–or maybe just enduring. I can’t always tell.

    Praying for the deepest sense of peace and comfort for you and your mom–and the blessed miracle of perfect healing.

    1. Thank you Barbara. Pain is pain is pain but it sure is hard to lose people when they are young. My husband’s sister died in her 20s and it was probably the most traumatic event in my life. Keep us in your prayers.

  11. You can only live one day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute at a time. I spoke to a friend of mine today who has been receiving chemo treatments for her cancer for the last year. She told me that she truly views every waking moment as a gift, something that she didn’t do before. She said that she used to always dwell on the past and worry about the future, failing to pay attention, close attention, to the present.

    It is unreal that you, David, and Bonnie are going through this again. Both of your parents really did try to live healthy lives and this seems so very unfair. I know that your Mom has been dealt a bad hand—she would look at it that way—-she has always loved playing bridge.

    I wish that we all could truly appreciate every moment we have with one another. Why do we need sickness to teach us that lesson? I hope the days ahead are peaceful for all of you during this very difficult time. Love, Aunt Frannie

    1. Love you Frannie! So good to talk to you the other day; wish it had been under different circumstances though. We’ll meet again soon in NYC and have dinner, yes?

  12. Sara,
    So so sorry to hear about your mom. No one can understand the unfairness of life. Rationally we know it is so, but we still expect things to play out according to plan. And to be rewarded for playing by the rules. There is no safe side. But why do we waste so much time sweating the little things?
    Your post is beautiful. And the high school reunion one is right on the money. I would love to read one of your novels.
    I am hoping that your mom gets back on her feet quickly and that you can enjoy her for as much time as possible.
    I have only had a parent and grandparents die suddenly and have often wondered how you face a terminal illness. How do you manage to find joy in the moments when you know what is coming?
    Please know we are thinking of you. Thank you for your writing.

    1. Wish I got to see more of you Isabella. Thanks for your thoughts and when those damn things get published, I will be waiting for your reviews.

  13. Tears are blurring my words as I write this to you, Sara. Your transparency is commendable, and *seems wrong to say right now, but…* your articulate writing exemplifies your brilliant talent, as well as your exquisite sadness. That being said, I must say…I HATE CANCER. I literally loathe it. It took away my precious little cousin at age 12, and it took away my beloved son-in-law (former Marine, titled weight lifter, gifted, healthy, wonderful person) before the age of 23. It mocks us all, and we are left standing in the tornado of grief trying to make sense of it and life and loss. I believe you hit it on the head with your quote above:

    “It is not the world that is absurd, nor human thought: the absurd arises when the human need to understand meets the unreasonableness of the world, when “my appetite for the absolute and for unity” meets “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

    It DOES NOT make sense.

    The best coping mechanism for grief is time, yet what do we do in the interim? I chose to be angry at God…really angry…for awhile. I yelled and screamed and tossed myself around in His presence, only to have him love me in return by telling me the greatest thing *really, it flooded my mind like a tsunami* that I was then able to share with my family. It comforted them greatly, almost like I’d applied magical healing balm. That was my sign that the message was truly from Our Father who loves us more than we can ever understand or fathom.

    When death came again a few years ago and stole my brother from an indescribable disease that came out of nowhere, mimics Mad Cow Disease, and strikes one in a million (did you get those odds?), I began to feel the old anger well up. However, I had blessedly learned a few things from the other losses, and I took another whole approach of trusting the Creator of All to manage the lives of my loved ones and me.

    My advice is: 1) Don’t stop laughing. 2) Have a quarrel (or many) with God if you must…He’s big enough to take it. 3) Put on your eternal glasses and view your whole life as if you were standing on top of a mountain and not in the valley alone.

    I shall be praying for you and your family, Sara. God bless you, sweetie.

    1. I’m lucky to be born into a family of comedians so the laughter flows, especially during hard times. I appreciate your words of solace and guidance. Keep us in your prayers.

  14. Oh, Sara. I don’t know that I can say or offer any other words of comfort that haven’t already been said above. Ditto times 10 to it all. I’ve been thinking about you and the unfairness of what you and your family are going through, wishing I had some piece of wisdom to share. Just know that I’m part of your community of peeps who are sending hugs and healing energies and solace to you whenever you need it.

  15. First, Sara, I’m really sorry for all that you’re going through. That is just so difficult….big huge hugs to you.

    As far as what I do? Well, I have a real problem trying to make sense out of what makes no sense and trying to see the fair in the obviously unfair and trying to understand the things that can’t possibly be understood.
    The thinking starts and it just goes on and on to the point where I might drive myself insane. The only things that help me are things that stop me from thinking. Quiet time is the enemy. Old music, big gatherings, crazy exercise, lively conversations and laughter ~ real laughter, if I can muster it.

    1. Somehow, we’ve been able to muster a lot of laughter and I am with you — it really helps get you through the day. I’m also a thinker and need those distractions to, well, distract me from the fear and anxiety re: what is happening. Thanks for your support and hugs.

So what do you think?