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Hillary St. Pierre Headshot

The Opportunity in Loss

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Before I had cancer, I cringed when the dog brought in sand from outside. My husband and I argued about whether the silverware should be put face up or face down in the dishwasher. Our house was never clean enough even though I'd spend at least eight hours "perfecting" it. I'd scold my son when he got excited and ran full force at me for a hug. I'd complain about imagined slights and forget about friends in need of support. I didn't even know how to be supportive. I was so afraid of failing, I barely tried.

I believed in the "if I only had" myth. If I only had my bedroom painted, the second floor finished, a garage and a new car I'd be happy. Or if only my son would behave and my husband made more money then I'd be happy. These thoughts lead me to think that if I only worked 48-60 hours a week, I could make $5000 a month, and then everything would be perfect.

Any of this sounding familiar? Were you wondering why you weren't perfectly happy too?

When I got cancer, all those ideas crumbled and fell like sand between my fingertips. I'd never experienced such a loss.

I lost my job and our financial stability. My lifelong idea that money could buy a comfortable lifestyle was shattered. My idea that "if my house, career and family were perfect, life would be perfect too" was defunct.

I was stripped of the foundation of ideas I had about life overnight, only to be left with the clarity to see how I was living was fundamentally different than how I wanted to live.

I realized I'd open doors, give compliments and offer wide smiles to strangers, while snapping at the ones I loved most for misspeaking a word or misplacing an item. I was surprised how sure I was of the life I wanted, and how with all the assets I had, I couldn't obtain that ideal. I needed clarity, and I found it like most of us do, through loss -- by living forward and understanding backward.

After cancer (AC), when I didn't feel happy, I'd look back in retrospect with my 20/20 hindsight and think of how I could improve to have the life I wanted next time. I replaced distractions with reflections. From losing everything -- for me by my cancer but maybe for others through foreclosure, lay-off, divorce or any other catastrophe -- having anything felt like winning the lottery.

I was like a child again, excited over every little occurrence like I'd never experienced it before. I loved that my dog could open the door herself with her muddy feet to check on me. My husband and I would debate about cheesy comedy vs. science fiction while snuggling on the couch. I'd open my arms wide when my son would charge full force at me like a football player wanting a hug. I stopped assuming the worst if my friend forgot to call and started loving them openly and honestly, free from judgments.

The "if I only had" myth turned to the "if I was only healthy" mantra. The stability I longed for was not financial. It wasn't anything concrete that could be gifted in this world. I longed for a daily routine and family dinners, not the largest, well groomed home in the neighborhood and the highest income. My concerns of the past didn't even register on my worry radar anymore.

Crisis, cancer, whatever, changes everything -- but it doesn't have to change everything for the worst. Even when losing everything, we never lose our free will, our ability to choose, and that includes the choice to focus on happiness.

Obstacles offer opportunities to grow. Crises allows us to practice our resilience, re-evaluate what is and isn't working in our lives, to emerge happier and smarter.

Cancer gave me the clarity to see the life I could still live, even if I was poor and ill. I discovered I was bigger than my body, my bank account, clothing or career. Crisis had set me free from my personal measuring stick, telling me I had to constantly be perfect. By disowning my own expectations, I was set free to live a life of limitless love and success. All I had to do was lose everything to understand I already had it all and didn't even know it.

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