By Stacy Hope Small
When you lose people you love, no matter the circumstances, there is a horrible feeling that hits you. It is called grief. Simply put, loss leads to grief. It’s unavoidable, but sometimes you get more than your share.
I’ve had MORE than my share, losing both parents to cancer in their 60s. I was in my 30s when my dad got sick. My mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 25 and she was 49. It came and went for 18 years, she died at 67 when I was 44. It took me years to heal and recover from the PTSD and everything else you’re subjected to as an adult orphan. That’s grief. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, another birthday or holiday or their death day or your birthday or a family event triggers the grief. At 53, I am at peace with losing my parents too young as it’s allowed me to find and forge my own path.
A huge piece of forging this path has meant finding friends in this lifetime who feel like family. These friends play an essential role when you are parent-less, and the pain eventually dulls. It never full disappears, but the peace shows up and you start having fun when the right friends show up.
One of these friends in my life showed up for me in my San Diego chapter. As a mom of multiple rescue dogs, I always need to find local dog-lovers who will treat my pups as if they’re family. That was Kinsey Kampfer when I met her in early 2018. She helped me calm down my crazy (new to me) 10-year old cocker spaniel, and she made fast friends with the “boys” as she called Mikey and Romeo. I took an immediate liking to her, as her friendly warm energy was contagious. We became fast friends, and she was probably the most FUN friend I’ve ever had.
Kinsey was THAT friend that everyone wants to have. The friend who will listen to you talk through poor choices, and invite you to a beach party or a baseball game or a bbq because she wants everyone in her world to be HAPPY. When I was new to the area, I felt like I’d struck gold in the friend department. Not only had I found the most amazing friend for my pups, I’d found myself a friend soulmate! People would always ask if we were sisters when we out, we definitely had an energetic match and I took it as a huge compliment. I thought she was much prettier and skinnier than me, but hey, if someone thought we were sisters I’d take it.
Friends are soul sisters. That is something my friendship with Kinsey taught me. Even when I moved away from San Diego to go back to Maui (prior to knowing we had a pandemic coming our way), we were in constant touch. I think I was one of the first people she told about her cancer diagnosis. She wasn’t looking for sympathy, she just wanted to make sure I knew that she 100% believed in her ability to beat the cancer beast.
It was, she told me, “some weird form of skin cancer.” But, don’t worry, she said. “There are a lot of different trials and I am going to try them all.”
I believed in her the same way I believed my mom when she told me that she’d be “FINE” and that the breast cancer was something that was treatable, if not curable. My mom and Kinsey had that fighting spirit in common. Two strong women, two souls who weren’t going to let cancer ruin (or end) their lives. I watched my mom knit hats for chemo patients when she was going through chemo. She never let on to the fact that she was scared of her cancer until the very end, when she started to say things like “I don’t know if I’ll be here for XYX….” as if to prepare us.
I never heard my dear friend Kinsey complain besides the occasional “Oh f**k, I guess I really am a cancer patient”. She told me that about a year into her diagnosis, after trying a series of trials and treatments but not ever believing it was life-threatening. I think she, and all who loved her, including me wanted to believe that she would kick this thing. And, if she couldn’t kick it, surely she’d live a good long time co-existing with cancer as my mom did.
Well, fast forward to a few days ago when I got a text from Kinsey telling me she was in hospice. I was walking into the local DMV to renew my license and I almost vomited. WTF? I mean, I’d seen her posts on instagram the past week from a bed at MD Anderson Cancer center, but she’d made visiting hospitals a habit the past year. Everytime she hit a wall, she’d spend a few days under doctor’s care, but it was never ever indictive of her life coming to its end.
This time was different. This time was real. This time was the lead up to the horrible huge dose of grief coming my way. I was numb all day, and when I texted back she didn’t reply. I was afraid that was it, and kept running the highlights reel of our friendship through my head.
Kinsey was the friend who I went out dancing with in random places in San Diego after we had plates of tacos and too much tequila; she was the friend who’d show up at my house with her toolkit (!) and hang pictures and outdoor lamps in time for my housewarming party. We’d have “friend date nights” and we both especially loved dollar oyster night at Herringbone in La Jolla. She was forever regaling me with tales of her latest flings, and she inspired me to take life a little less seriously and to have a bit more fun. She never judged me, even when I decided to give THAT guy one more chance. We had such a FUN friendship. It was light and fun, just the kind of friendship we all need to have with friends we can also get deep and serious with.
Kinsey’s text to me from her hospice bed was about as serious as it gets. As much fun as our friendship was, it was also very very serious when cancer showed up. The reality of Kinsey’s text was painful. It hurts differently when it’s a friend who’s been part of your most recent chapters. This isn’t how it’s supposed to end. But, that’s grief showing back up to remind us that life is an ongoing series of plot twists.
I was already laying in bed with an awful headache trying to process the imminent loss, when I saw a message from Kinsey. It was 6AM and she had a few more things to tell me. She told me she will miss seeing my face and hearing my cute laugh, and that she promises to hug my parents and Romeo and that she will visit us. She will send butterflies. I told her to show me her peace sign, and that I will think of her everytime I play Michael Franti music. The concert I took her to last summer was probably the most fun evening of our friendship. We danced, sang, laughed, hugged strangers and each other. For that night, she wasn’t a “Cancer Patient” she was just my wonderful friend Kinsey Kampfer.
The end of this story isn’t happy. It isn’t how it’s supposed to end. Although I do believe in miracles, I also know that God has a bigger plan and when a friend texts you from their hospice bed, it’s not a GOOD-BYE but a “GOOD-BYE for now”.
Grief sucks. It has no predictability and less-than-zero cure except for living through it, processing it, sharing it with those who understand. That’s why I am writing this, in the name of good grief. Hug your friends and your pups a little harder today. Tomorrow is a gift. Growing old is a privilege.