The Heartbreaking Reality of Losing a Young Friend to Cancer

It was the start of sixth grade, and I was stepping into an entirely new world, nestled within the bustling and diverse heart of Chicago. The anxiety of moving yet again and forging new friendships loomed over me like a dark cloud. But, upon my parents' insistence, I arrived early, one of the first to walk into the empty classroom. Would anyone choose to sit with me?

As my classmates trickled in, each made their seating choice based on the complicated dynamics typical of middle-school social structures. Suddenly, I became the point of interest, the new kid in the classroom. Waiting for the class to begin, I could feel a wave of unease washing over me. Would anyone choose to sit with me?

I couldn't have known it then, but I was on the brink of being embraced by a group of the most considerate sixth graders, one of them being a girl named Eleanor. It marked the dawn of a journey I had never anticipated, one that would profoundly shape my life in ways unimaginable.

Eleanor stood tall among us, her brunette hair a beacon in the crowd, a symbol of respect and trustworthiness. If you were entangled in the often-chaotic world of middle school drama, it was Eleanor you sought. Her aura was striking, not intimidating, but comforting, a sign of someone wise beyond her years. Our class was a unique blend, bound by an unspoken pact of friendship. We shared everything, and our unity was further cemented by the guidance of the best teacher we'd ever known. We had our moments of conflict, but we always found our way back to each other.

However, after the eighth grade, many of us drifted apart, the pull of different high schools drawing us in diverse directions. The bond remained, but the physical distances started to grow. Then, in August 2018, shocking news reverberated through our dispersed network. Eleanor had been diagnosed with cancer in her liver and lungs. I was in a different high school by then and received the news through the grapevine of friends and family. Despite the severity, our youthful optimism convinced us she would pull through. It was Eleanor after all, the strongest among us. Her parents echoed this sentiment in her CaringBridge journal, portraying her as the kind, talented, fierce, incredibly witty, and loving girl we all knew.

I had a chance to visit her, with a few friends. We used the opportunity to share laughter and create one more shared memory. Even in the midst of her struggle, she made space for her loved ones, her wit and sarcasm undiminished, a testament to her remarkable strength. Tragically, that visit would be the last time I shared a moment with Eleanor. It's a time deeply etched in my memory.

On August 1st, 2019, news of Eleanor’s passing arrived. A funeral was swiftly arranged, an event that no teenager should ever have to attend, especially for a friend as cherished as Eleanor. It's a moment that's seared into my memory. Our reactions varied widely, from laughter reminiscing about old times, to tears of loss, and anger at the unfairness of it all. Fear and empathy were tangible in the air, yet amidst the tragedy, a sense of unity arose. It was a painful lesson in the harsh realities of life, a testament to the indomitable spirit of Eleanor, and an unforgettable demonstration of the power of shared grief.

Reflecting on my journey, here are four pieces of advice for anyone dealing with a similar situation:

1. Let Yourself Grieve: Losing a friend, especially at a young age, is tough. Allow yourself to feel the pain. I didn't really let myself grieve until I started writing this blog. Remember, everyone grieves in their own way and it can take a long time. Don't rush it.

2. Remember Them: Keep the memory of your friend alive. Think about the happy times, the lessons they taught you, and their dreams. Remembering them helps with the pain.

3. Talk to Others: Don't keep your feelings to yourself. Writing this blog helped me open up about how Eleanor's death affected me. I think about her a lot, but I found it hard to talk about it. Share your memories, cry, and laugh. You're not alone in this.

4. It's OK to Move On: I'm sure Eleanor would want me to keep being a passionate Chicago Bears fan, just like she was. It may feel impossible now, but there will be a time when the pain of losing them won't be as strong. Moving on doesn't mean forgetting them. It means accepting what happened, cherishing their memory, and continuing to live your life. They would want you to be happy.

In the end, dealing with the loss of Eleanor was a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. It was about understanding that even though her physical presence is no longer with us, her spirit lives on, in the memories we shared, in the laughter, the tears, and in the transformation she spurred in all of us. Each time we remember her, Eleanor continues to touch our lives, a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the indomitable power of friendship. So, while we may stumble and fall in the face of loss, it's the getting back up, the moving forward, that truly honors those we've lost. In honoring their memory, we continue their legacy, forever their lives with ours. And in this, we find our solace, our strength, and ultimately, our healing.

Photo courtesy of author.