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Losing a Friend to Cancer

by Kendra Holley

Four years have passed since one of my closest friends died. Ben and I never quite knew how to explain our relationship. It was one like Elton John describes when he sings, "…when stars collide, no shadows block the sun…" We met during our midlife years at the agency where we worked trying to help families build better lives. We became fast friends and grew to love each other within a few weeks. Soon we were working as a team on a new program, spending ten to twelve hours a day together, and felt like family to each other. Both of us were married to others (and not unhappily) so we chose not to become lovers--a decision not always easy to live with. Our love was boundless, timeless, and often fiery.

Less than two years after we met came the awful diagnosis. The cancer was not just in his colon; it had spread throughout his liver. He had less than a year to live, the doctors thought. He proved them wrong and lived two years longer, but those of us who loved him still felt terribly cheated. During those two years, I lived often on the verge of tears, grieving so deeply that I was certain I would need antidepressants to continue day to day living. But my heart told me I didn't want to distance myself from the pain; rather, I wanted to be one hundred percent there with Ben. I wanted to embrace those last days with him and even grow through this very difficult time. I turned to two things to make it through: the Intensive Journal method and walking meditation. They work together well, and they became like river and rock for me. When I did not feel that I could keep going, they carried me like water. When I desperately needed strength, they were the foundation I leaned on.

During those days I felt like the Grand Canyon had been carved through my heart, a huge gaping void in my chest. Still, somehow, they were some of the best days I've ever lived. When I scattered his ashes off the southern coast of Mexico in June 2001, I felt I had been given a most precious gift. In the terrible loss, I somehow found a wonderful fullness. The Intensive Journal method was my guide through those days, and through me, was Ben's guide as well. For that, I am ever so grateful.

Facing cancer can never be easy, but the Intensive Journal process can help to ease the pain. It is structured so that patients and family members can work in community with a guide at a workshop, but also in the privacy and comfort of their own homes. Each person who attends a workshop receives many hours of guidance in the method, a textbook, and a loose-leaf workbook all set up to do the work. Family members can work individually on their own issues and then come together to work, as Ben and I often did when I shared an entry and he asked me questions about it. We sometimes dialogued for hours. I remember walking a favorite trail together and sharing an entry that prompted him to ask me, "But how will we know each other when we meet again if we don't have our bodies with us?" Ben would never have approached that subject or expressed his fear of being lonely after he died if I had not been working with the Intensive Journal method.

A second reason I believe the method works so well is that as one moves in and out of the different sections in the workbook, it is as if one is guided through all the rooms of his or her soul. There is safety there, but also the chance to do deep healing work. Traditional methods of therapy don't always get us to a place of healing because when we are facing death head on, we often need to live behind strong walls of denial and defense in order carry on our daily lives. When we walk into a therapist's office for only an hour or two, there is simply not enough time to let down defenses, do the healing work, and be ready to face the world outside again.

As I worked the Intensive Journal method during the years Ben was living with cancer, I learned to trust its healing process and the guidance that my inner voice offered through its pages. I opened up to my intuitive side more than ever before, and I believe that is the reason why the time was so rich for me. When we are facing life and death issues, we naturally look to heaven, the universe, God, and spiritual guides for answers. We open to communication and communion with others and with other worlds, whether those worlds exist outside of us somewhere, or inside of us, in the depths of our souls. The Intensive Journal method leads us into the river of wisdom and strength found in these other worlds through our dreams and imagery, and through dialogues with nature, events, and people--including those who have left this world--as well as spiritual guides.

Because I had worked with the method before, I was familiar with the images and guides that came to me as I did the Intensive Journal exercises, which were to offer me deep wisdom and sometimes a direction or answer I was seeking. One such guiding image I had known for many years. She was a young woman who always appeared dressed in deep blue velvet and cream-colored lace. Always she wore sturdy, beat up, brown leather boots. When I saw her, she was most often making her way up a forested trail, sometimes easily and sometimes with more difficulty. She almost always visited when I was working with the method and trying to make a decision on a crucial life issue. Shortly after Ben was diagnosed, she appeared again, only not in her usual blue velvet and lace, but this time in sandy colored khaki. Her hair was straggly pulled back and her face was caked with sweat and dirt. The trail was not forested; this time, she was in the midst of endless sand dunes. The same old boots were thick with dust. Way in the distance, over her shoulder, I could see the ocean. I sensed she was desperately thirsty, and the only water in view was salty.

She symbolized for me the barrenness I felt sexually and emotionally. Ben and I had fought our desire, stayed faithful to our partners, and then were slapped in the face by the snake in the grass disease now making its way through his body. I read in her face how hard I would have to work to get through this time of aching and parting. Before, she often had companions or a love walking with her. This time she was alone, as I knew I would be, in taking time in solitude to work through my grief.

Another way that the Intensive Journal process proved invaluable for me is that I often shifted from quantitative time to qualitative time as I did the work. Quantitative time is the objective chronological sequence of life events as seen by an outside observer with no emotional investment. Qualitative time is the subjective experience of those objective events that have meaning as felt by the participant. Experiencing those shimmering moments that seemed to last for hours, and those hours that just flashed by and were mysteriously gone, helped me to realize how wonderful and priceless the gift of now is. Our memories are, after all made of moments lived. During the weeks before Ben died, I learned to stop all my senseless regretting of past screw-ups and my endless planning and fearing events coming ahead to just be here now. And in slowing my mind and being present for the journey in qualitative time right where I was, I found incredible strength in Ben's soft eyes, the oaks I walked under, and the ocean I prayed beside.

The Intensive Journal process offers us the structure to record both those very precious moments of quantitative (or chronological) time, and the magical experiences that happen in qualitative time as well. Then later as we are grieving and processing, we can return to them again and again for comfort and guidance. Still today, I frequently return to an entry in my Daily Log section where I recorded the feelings and impressions of qualitative time as I sat by a stream and combed out my damp hair as Ben watched. Those words seemed insignificant as I wrote them, but now with the help of my workbook, I realize that time was our last together in the outdoors, where we so loved to be. We said a lot to each other that day, without ever speaking.

My entries in the different sections of my Intensive Journal workbook serve as a record of my journey with Ben at the end of his life. The memories, images, and dialogues recorded there helped me then, and continued to help me heal and grow in those lonely and dark months after he left us.

Since Ben's death, the Intensive Journal method has remained a way of life for me. As I work with it, I am always reminded that each day is a new life. Understanding that, it becomes possible to live with pain, uncertainty and loss and still find joy in each new sunrise. It is difficult, but possible. And as I type these last words, I can hear Ben's voice reminding me that when it is dark enough outside, you can see the stars.

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.