There is a drawing of a small bird that is nestled in my dresser drawer amongst my most treasured memories. I take it out occasionally, sometimes on a particular date and sometimes when a memory whispers for my attention. I never know when the thoughts will come, and years ago, I thought they would eventually fade away; but survivor’s guilt doesn’t choose to be graceful and exit quietly to stage left.
Josh had the best smile, looked a lot like Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, and was just mischievous enough to make every nurse in the oncology clinic love him. I was almost to the midpoint of my treatment, and it was time for another set of scans to check the progress of chemo and the latest round of radiation. Of course, no set of scans is complete without a deliciously crafted barium and artificial flavoring cocktail. I sat in the hallway willing myself to take one more drink when this Pacey imposter walks up, takes a seat, and hands me a blow-pop. He assured me it was a trade secret to help with the taste and was 100% backed by every patient’s favorite nurse. As my mom was off talking to one of my care team providers, I decided to go for it because if there was any time to take candy from a stranger it’s when your odds of dying are significantly higher than the rest of your freshman class, right?
Josh proceeded to introduce himself as I tested his theory that suckers could magically mask the flavor of liquid chalk. When this experiment resulted in only slight improvement, Josh made an offer that turned our mere acquaintance into a friendship. He asked if I was willing to part with $1 for the vending machine in exchange for taking a few swigs of my beverage. I laughed so hard that barium came out of my nose. This was his goal, the ultimate reward he was seeking with his antics. Because that was who he was. Someone who wanted to bring joy to anyone that was lucky enough to have met him for just 30 seconds or a lifetime of friendship.
Lifetime is a paradox for survivors because a span of minutes, days, months, and years can quickly change from an abundance to only a few. Josh is a lifetime friend… the rest of his lifetime is spent on that side of heaven and the remainder of my lifetime is spent remembering him. That is what is not fair though: my lifetime gets to be so much longer than his. Josh’s physical body stopped existing on this earth just a little short of two years after I met him. I could not grasp that in two years we went from him being in remission and my prognosis not being great to him being gone, and I was getting my pass to go from three-month follow-ups to six months. His relapse was fast and relentless; a quick thief that came suddenly and took quickly. By this time, he had moved in hopes of finally starting a “normal” young adulthood while I was still in high school, and our main means of communication was through letters and cards. One day they stopped coming in the mail, and then I received a return to sender. Although I did not want to believe it, I knew what had happened before it was confirmed by our mutually favorite nurse. I cried for the loss and grieved all that was taken but I also cried because I felt guilty. There was a lie that bloomed somewhere deep and dark that told me that it should have been me and somehow by not trading places I was responsible for him not being here. That depression followed me for a long time and no one around me understood or knew that I needed help. That lie pulled and dragged my mental health to a dark place that created an internal belief that I did not deserve to live.
It took fifteen years of burying those thoughts, punishing myself, overachieving, and people-pleasing, trying to prove I was worthy enough to be alive. It took fifteen years to find the right therapist: a trauma-informed therapist that recognized PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Through intense therapy sessions I was able to create a safe space for the 17-year-old that lost her friend and allowed her to grieve. I was able to dismantle the lies and rebuild a version of losing Josh that didn’t equate to guilt that I couldn’t save him; it became a perspective of gratitude that I could honor him through living a life full enough for us both. While there are still times that I feel a familiar twinge of guilt, I can now recognize and confront the feeling. I can shift my mindset to feeling gratitude that I am here, remember Josh and miss him for a moment, and then make the choice to live and hold the privilege of honoring him.