In August of 2015, Kelly wrote the blog post, “Life Isn’t Fair”. In the post, she processed her melanoma diagnosis in the context of the privileges she had been afforded in the other areas of her life.
Much like Kelly, I have been afforded so much privilege. I have grown up white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, Christian, and in the United States. Life isn’t fair, but I am on the receiving end. When Kelly died, it felt at first like that changed. Something wasn’t fair, and this time I got the short end of the stick. In the wake of her death, I sat with similar questions to what that Kelly posed on her blog.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate, privileged, had everything handed to me. I’ve never had to go through anything very difficult. Does that make this less fair, because I’m less equipped to handle adversity? Does it make it more fair because I’ve had everything else so easy?”
Even as my mind whirred with these thoughts, I had the wisdom Kelly shared just after that paragraph. She knew that wrestling with how life is or isn’t fair wasn’t the right approach.
“Cancer isn’t fair. Neither is it fair that people, children and adults, are murdered for being black. Murdered for being trans. Murdered for being gay. Terrorized for no good reason because some privileged person has decided they are inexplicably less than human…Life isn’t fair, and to get caught up in the unfairness of my diagnosis is to ignore what happens around me every day.”
I have tried to apply that same sentiment in grief. Losing Kelly has been hard. It’s still hard. But in the year since Kelly’s death, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people around me that are also struggling with loss or the fear and sadness that come with a cancer diagnosis of a loved one. I just had to start paying attention and caring more deeply for the people around me.
I recognized this first in the week after Kelly’s funeral. I returned to a tutoring program I volunteer with weekly during the school year. My tutee, Alex*, came to tutoring out of sorts. After some coaxing, she revealed that her cousin had been shot and killed. As she found the words to share this with me, tears rolled down her cheeks. Soon she stopped talking and we sat together while she cried.
I knew how to sit with Alex and feel the pain of loss that night. Alex reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this experience. But even in our mutual grief, there were stark differences in the losses we suffered. Alex is a ten year-old, African American child. Her cousin was murdered. As I walk through the world with white skin, I will never know the pain and fear that Alex shared with me at tutoring that night.
It is not a coincidence that Alex and I have markedly different childhoods. African American children are more likely than white children to live in poverty and less likely to have a mother with a college degree. These differences translate into real educational and health disparities. Despite living in the same nation, African American and white children face drastically unequal realities—the same amount of effort does not yield the same opportunities. That isn’t fair.
I don’t always act in a way that recognizes and works towards rectifying these discrepancies. It is a goal I strive towards, to show compassion for the struggles of others. I am going to have to work at it each day.
Kelly’s words are on the bulletin board of my office. For me, they are a prompt each morning to be more compassionate than I was the day before. Her mission statement challenges us all to do the same.