"Life is a precious gift, and I don't intend to waste a day of it." So writes Jai Pausch at the end of her new book Dream New Dreams: Reimagining My Life After Loss, summing up the wisdom accrued on her journey literally rebuilding new dreams after her husband, Randy Pausch, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at 47.
Randy Pausch was an acclaimed Carnegie Mellon professor and author of the best seller The Last Lecture, a book that emerged out of a Carnegie Mellon lecture series of the same name. For the series, speakers were asked what they'd tell their students if, hypothetically, they knew they were going to die. In Randy Pausch's case, there was nothing hypothetical: He had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The Last Lecture, which became an instant sensation on the internet and was seen by over 14 million viewers, is a powerful ode to seizing life and fully realizing one's dreams.
In her new book, Jai Pausch chronicles the profound challenges that she and her family faced as Randy succumbed to cancer. Pausch speaks for millions in describing how she managed her role of caregiver, how she dealt with extraordinary grief, how she negotiated the emotional terrain of parenting and the needs of her children, and how, finally, she learned to take care of herself, move forward and let new love in. While her narrative is deeply personal, Pausch dedicates her book "to all the people who care for ill and dying loved ones and who struggle to do the best they can without the proper training and resources to help them."
Pausch is now a passionate advocate promoting pancreatic cancer research. She recently spoke with The Huffington Post.
You write about the need to "care for the caregiver." What were the main challenges you faced as a caregiver?
There were many challenges, but three in particular come immediately to mind. The most difficult was dealing with the constant change in my late husband's health status and his medical needs. I found ways to address my concerns by talking openly with our oncologists, nurses, hospice and other health care providers. I was also balancing my ever-expanding responsibilities as parent, wife, medical aide, scheduler, and head of household. I learned to accept help from friends and family without feeling guilty or seeing myself as weak.
Lastly, one of the most subtle issues I encountered was trying to handle the emotions stemming from watching someone I love suffer every day. Writing in my journal or talking to our cancer counselor helped me voice my fears and get more in touch with my feelings.
How did you manage to let go of the past while managing the imperatives of the moment -- parenting, moving forward, dating and eventually finding a new spouse?
Grieving, letting go of the past, and giving yourself permission to live again are difficult processes, unique to each person. There is no one way or right way to grieve. There isn't a prescribed timeline. I would encourage a person who is grieving to be kind to him or herself and not to compare him or herself with others, not even to the person he or she was before the loss.
You beautifully describe, among other moments, your predicament speaking with your children about their father's illness and passing. How are your children faring now and what words of wisdom might you offer parents in a similar situation?
My children are doing very well now. I realize now how resilient children are. I would like to pass on what our cancer counselor told me when talking to children about cancer and death. There were several points that were important to make to the children, who were very young at the time:
1 - Tell the child they did not cause the parent to get cancer or to die.
2 - We don't know how the parent got cancer, but we know that the child cannot catch cancer like a cold.
3 - In the case where the parent has died, keep it simple. The parent's heart stopped beating and he/she stopped breathing and has died.
4 - There is nothing the child can do to make the cancer go away or for the parent to come back to life.
5 - The surviving parent or guardian will be there to take care of the child.
I'd recommend practicing these points over and over again before actually having the conversation. This way, you won't forget important points when overwhelmed with emotion.
What have you learned about the grieving process that might help others?
Grieving hurts like hell. It can have physical repercussions as well as psychological repercussions. No one wants to feel bad, but you can't run from grief or hide from it. Suppressing these emotions only means walling off a part of yourself. It's important to find a safe place to address sad feelings, to give vent to emotions, whether that's in a support group or alone in one's room.
That said, there is no one way to grieve. What feels right for you is what you should do. But I can tell you what worked for me: grieving before my late husband's death helped to soften the blow to my heart. It helped me to start imagining a future on my own and accept what was to come. After he passed, I also accepted that I was suffering from depression and, upon the advice of my doctor, took an anti-depressant for about a year. Be prepared for the "Year of Firsts" as each holiday or special date comes around on the calendar and you struggle to create a new routine or ritual. Give yourself permission to be happy and more forward with your life, even though your loved one has died.
At one point you decided that you "did not want to be married to a ghost." How did you finally let go of the past enough to let new love in?
I never felt like I had to date or get remarried. I was content with my life, but then I slowly realized I missed having male companionship. I missed romance. I missed romantic love. Then, I had to accept the idea of dating --- that I was not cheating on my late husband --- and therefore I was no longer married. I had to see myself as single before I could be with someone else. This happened over a period of many months until I was ready to even talk to a man with romantic intentions.
What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
A wise friend once said happiness is more often obtained when our expectations are in line with and changes with reality. I think we often operate under false hopes or we're thinking about how things were in the past. When we see life for how it really is around us and we adjust our behavior, decisions and wishes accordingly, there's a greater chance we will be pleased with how our lives are progressing.