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“I have malignant tumors of unknown origin…” read the text message below some beautiful photos and several other sentences from my best friend, who had just gotten back from taking her mom, whose health has been declining for the last several years, on a trip to one of their favorite places in northern Germany.
My heart sank immediately.
I put down my phone and found myself starting blankly at my home office computer screen.
How is this possible?
What did she mean that she had tumors of unknown origin and that she was currently lying in a hospital bed while the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on?
After taking a moment to gather myself, I texted her back and said that I would like to call her and learn more, but she wrote back and told me I would have to wait because it was getting late (she has been living and working in Germany for the past 10 years) and she wanted to be sensitive to her hospital roommate, who was very ill.
I called the following morning and the news became even worse: she told me that she had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma tumors in multiple locations throughout her body, her doctors were trying to come up with a treatment plan, and her long-term diagnosis did not look favorable.
Upon hearing this news, I told her that I would come as soon as I was able to see her, since I knew that there were still travel restrictions due to COVID for US citizens flying to Germany.
“You would do that for me?” she asked. “Of course I will,” I responded.
There was a brief pause followed by a tear-filled “Thank you.”
I began making my initial plans with her and her two brothers, who live in Frankfurt, at the beginning of June 2021.
Several weeks later, on June 22, my prayer was answered… US citizens were now allowed to travel into Germany following a strict protocol.
I booked my flight, and the reality of the situation began to sink in.
I would be flying to Germany to say good-bye to my friend, whom I had met in college and with whom I shared a “once-in-a-lifetime” kind of relationship.
Given the mental and emotional weight of this situation, I decided to go ahead and get my workout on my indoor stationary bike done for the day, as opposed to trying to accomplish anything else.
Who knew that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a song that (I discovered after the fact) came out in the summer of 1995, the same summer we met through playing together on the University of California at Berkeley field hockey team, would bring up so many memories.
As the weight of the sadness pressed down on me, my legs pressed correspondingly harder and harder on the bike pedals.
Within several minutes, the floor mat became covered with sweat and tears.
At the same time, I was reminded that, although the news about my friend was devastating, movement can be extremely important in our times of deep darkness and despair.
As I have continued to process my grief through exercising over the last several weeks (including a run to a COVID testing center so that I could continue to visit my friend while I was in Germany), I have found that I am better able to:
As for our last few days together, they were perfectly beautiful – filled with much laughter and tears, followed by moments of silence where we would look into one another’s eyes, acknowledging that our time together in this chapter of life was coming to an end.
As for the final in-person words I shared with her, they came to me while running in the beauty of God’s creation, literally just steps from the entrance to the clinic where she was staying.
I thanked her in my rusty German for everything she has taught me and I said a short blessing in English.
We hugged one last time and I slowly walked out of her hospital room… giving thanks and praise to God for the tremendous gift of friendship that God had given to us.
Want some more information and/or ideas on how to process grief through sweat and tears?
Here is another article you may find to be helpful, “How exercise can help with grief.”
“My eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, Lord…” Psalm 88:9b
Rev. Dr. Karen Webster is co-founder and executive director of the Healthy Seminarians-Healthy Church Initiative, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and validated ministry of Trinity Presbytery (SC). In addition to being an ordained PC(USA) pastor, Karen is certified as an Exercise Physiologist, Nutrition Specialist, and Health and Wellness Coach.