12/08/2010 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Deliberate Life of Elizabeth Edwards

Though we had eight years to be prepared for the news that came yesterday, it still seems shocking that the end for Elizabeth Edwards came so soon. It was a long goodbye, and yet it seems she left us far too quickly. We'd just heard news of her cancer taking a turn for the worse on Monday, and by Tuesday morning she was gone.

Elizabeth died with the same kind of courage and grace with which she lived her life. She faced her death head on and made no bones about her chances to live long enough to see her youngest children grown. She leaves behind Emma Claire, age 12; Jack, age 10; and Cate, age 28.

Elizabeth was intimate with loss, having lost her son Wade in a car accident when we was 16, and having later lost her marriage to John Edwards after he admitted to an affair and fathering a child with another woman. In the wake of these devastating losses, Elizabeth went on with her life, not wanting to be remembered for her hardships but rather for who she was and how she lived. Knowing that she might not be around to see her children to adulthood, she wanted them to continue to have their father as part of their lives. John Edwards was at her side when she died.

Last week, after learning from her doctors that further treatment would be "unproductive," Elizabeth posted this message on her Facebook page:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.

Elizabeth became the grace that sustained her. She carried that grace to her death, dying peacefully at home, surrounded by her family and close loved ones.

In October 2007, Elizabeth addressed the Women's Conference in California, sponsored by Maria Shriver. She spoke about life and death and living with a terminal illness. In the wake of her breast cancer recurrence, she no longer had the luxury of meandering through whatever days she had left and told the audience that she was learning to "live deliberately." She asked them to consider what story they wanted to leave behind. She deliberately chose the word "story" over "legacy" because, as she explained, "we don't have to earn a spot in our history books in order to have counted." She added, "Each of us just needs a story: a story worth telling, a story worth living. A story of a life that in some small measure matters."

On a personal note, I came across the video of that speech shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and was researching my own treatment options. I was deeply moved by Elizabeth's words. Please have a look:

Elizabeth lived her life as if it mattered, and it did. She lived it right out to the very end, filled with gratitude for the precious gift of each day, fully knowing that her days were numbered:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.

Karen Finney, a friend of Elizabeth's and spokesperson for the Edwards family, was interviewed by Keith Olbermann last night. She characterized Elizabeth as "happy" at the end. Elizabeth felt that she had won the battle, because in spite of the many tragedies in her life, she kept on going. She had met her life, lived it with passion, and fought for the causes that mattered to her. She was a tireless health-reform advocate and fought for the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

Elizabeth knew how long to go on with her personal fight against cancer and when to say "enough." Yesterday, she came to the end of her earthly journey, and she was gone. Elizabeth Edwards was 61 years old. She was one of a kind, an inspiring, courageous human being. A friend posted on her Facebook page that she imagines Wade waiting for his mama with open arms -- a warm and comforting thought. May she rest in the arms of her beloved son.

In lieu of flowers, the Edwards family has requested that donations may be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation, which benefits the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, at

Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments about Elizabeth's life and death in the space below. How were you inspired by her?


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