birds in flight

“Your purpose is hidden within your wounds.” – Rune Lazuli

There was a definitive moment in the hospital, after days of losing interest in personal hygiene and dedicating the vast majority of my energy to memorizing the names of different painkillers and chemotherapy drugs, in which I realized my perspective would be forever changed.

I stared up at the television in the hospital wing’s family lounge where I sat, along with my mother and father-in-law-to-be. We sat next to each other at the table, quietly nibbling on fast food we could barely stomach but mostly we were silent. Dr. Phil was on-screen, addressing a young teenager’s problematic and rebellious behavior. The teen had cheated on his girlfriend — an unfathomable source of pain for said girlfriend, who proclaimed several miserable decrees like how she “couldn’t take it anymore” and “wanted to die.”

Looking at the only other two people who I felt were as exhausted, run-down, emotionally-drained and irreparably disconsolate as me — the in-laws-to-be who I feared would never legally become my in-laws — I scoffed at Dr. Phil as I told them, “No matter how this ends, I will never look at the world the same… ever again.”

And I haven’t.

girl flowers

The man I was going to marry died of esophageal cancer on December 9, 2016. His death changed the entire course of my life: what I do for a living, how I view life, how I feel about relationships and love. The act of his actual dying — a traumatic, PTSD-inducing event that I was present for, an event that I actively fought against, perpetually offering everything and doing anything I could to save his life — killed little parts of my soul, one sliver at a time.

It changed who I was, watching the man I considered infallible deteriorate before my eyes. I was there when we told him he wasn’t going to make it – that intubation wasn’t going to save his life. I was there when he told me I was the love of his life and that he never wanted to put me through this; I was there when he said, with his hands raised open to the skies, “This is the best family anyone could have ever had.” His death and his dying affected me, altering every lens with which I’ve ever peered at life, but it’s the intolerable grief I walked away with that has shaped me into a better friend, better daughter and better human being.

I am hurt. I am shattered. In many ways, the prospect of loving again seems both worth it and also completely unbearable. I grieve every day, differently nearly every time it comes up. There are little pangs and there are big pangs. There lives trauma and PTSD here and a broken heart that will never quite fully fuse together again in the same way it was prior.

But I’m better for it for two simple reasons: Grief broke my heart, making me want to be better for others in every way possible and providing me with a different perspective on life.

How I Became a Better Friend

Grief monumentally changed my perspective, but I also know that it’s my perspective — not everyone’s. I’ve learned that everyone’s pain is valid, even situations and scenarios that appear petty from a life-or-death viewpoint.

Grief taught me how to listen to my friends the way I wished to be listened to when I talked about my own trauma, my own heartache and my own immeasurable loss. In my post-cancer days, I hear and I listen. Death makes me want my friends to know how important their happiness is, so in addition to listening, I’ve also gotten better at telling them that. To the people who matter to me, I make it a habit of telling them that they matter, that their happiness matters and that they deserve love. They deserve the sappy, disgusting kind that you see in the movies and wonder if it really exists.

It exists; I’ve experienced it. It was taken away from me, but I’ve experienced it. Nonetheless, I want my friends to know that they deserve that love. And I hope it doesn’t get taken away from them.

shoes flowers

How I Became a Better Daughter

Cancer forced me to be a vulnerable girlfriend because with such a persistent, non-stop force as an ever-growing malignant tumor, there is no space or time for not being completely, painstakingly honest. I wasn’t just honest with the love of my life; I traversed unchartered territory and became a new type of honest with my parents.

My mom and dad saw me navigate the rawest moments a person can: They watched as I arrived home late at night after commuting to chemotherapy sessions on the Upper East Side; they noticed every tiny, varying inflection in my voice as I explained medical terminology to them; they even watched as I held my boyfriend’s dying hand, beaming as I bragged about how he was doing great, that he even walked around the ward all by himself. I know my parents saw the love there, that they were happy for me, that they knew this relationship was different.

I became a better daughter because I welcomed my parents into the darkest, most violent and uninhibited parts of my life, allowing us both to finally understand each other.

How I Became a Better Human Being

Everyone has pain. Everyone has scars or wounds or whatever you want to call them, but what I take away from this whole unfathomable experience is only the positive.

I may be miserable with grief, some days rendered incapable of anything, of even wanting to live, but I have to remember that Matthew died more loved than any other human has ever been loved. He didn’t die alone; he didn’t die with only his parents by his side. He had a woman beside him who loved him fearlessly and endlessly, a woman who was ready to marry him, a woman who showed him so much love, life and happiness in days we thought were just trying but were actually final.

matthew stephanie
Image courtesy of Stephanie Osmanski

Grief made me a better human being because grief made me realize the scope of universal pain — how everyone’s individual experience of pain is just that, individual, but as valid as any other person’s. I choose to be kind to others; I remember the few who were kind to me. I remember the nurses who knew how much a pillow mattered when you’re spending night after night tangled up in a plastic chair. I remember the doctor who stayed well beyond his shift one night just to comfort my fast-falling tears when I first heard the word “hospice.” I remember the ICU attendant who cried when Matthew refused intubation.

Their kindness made my grief a degree more bearable. That’s the type of kindness I hope I show at least one other human being throughout my lifetime. I know from first-hand experience how invaluable such kindness is: It makes all the difference.

Who or what inspires you to “love better”?

Images via Esther Baban



  1. My boyfriend of 9 years died almost 1 year ago. I know how painful it is. I can’t even deal with anything negative anymore. I’m not quite where you are, but I do strive to be the best person I am ABLE to be right now. I try to appreciate what I have, even though so much has been taken away. Everyone needs the take the time to be thankful for the good because nothing is eternal.

  2. Stephanie,
    This is one of the most beautiful portraits of two people in love. Your love knew no boundaries and it was so beautifully honest. We are all better for knowing your love story. Thank you for sharing.
    Peggy P.

  3. This gripped my heart strings. Such a beautiful, raw and compassionate article. I so feel you and am sending you love and positivity–tons. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty in these words. I am so sorry for all that you’ve gone through but your newfound perspective on loving others better is beautiful and I am grateful that you are sharing it. The world needs love and kindness.

  5. Thank you. Once again I am reminded of the day I came home from work and found my dear husband and very best friend dead from a heart attack. Yes indeed, it changed my life forever. He was in fact the love of my life.
    I remember that sometimes I would put a note in his lunch bucket reminding him how much I loved him. He said some of his friend laughed, but deep inside I think they were envious of those notes. I will never regret them.
    Love like there is no tomorrow because someday there will be….

  6. Thank you for this. You have lived my greatest fears and I cannot imagine your loss. You are so strong and you are making a positive impact on humankind by sharing the light you drew from that experience.

  7. This article was heartbreaking to read but the depth of your love for each other was very clear. I have lost loved ones and I have learned the depth of the love makes our grief even more deeper, possibly even harder to handle their absence but I can say I wouldn’t change that deep, unconditional love I had with these amazing people for anything. We all should be so blessed to have even one person whom loves us and them us unconditionally. Its worth the heartbreak and pain but it doesn’t take away the fact that it just plain sucks!!

  8. Oh, wow. Your story was so sad, but so inspirational. I’m so happy for you that you’ve used it to grow. One of my classmates back in high school’s long term boyfriend passed away because of cancer a few years back, and we were never close, but from what little emotion she chose to reveal, I could tell how devastated she was. She’s moved on too and have become a stronger and better person, like you!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

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