This week, my beautiful friend, Melissa A. Kitchens, passed away following a courageous fight with ovarian cancer. Her partner and longtime love, Chuck Rose, recounts that she passed on with a smile. That’s the “Sweet Melissa” I will always remember—her radiant smile, affinity for all things Southern, feisty spirit and caring heart will never be forgotten by those who knew her. I love that her sass and spirit lives on in Youtube videos like this—by far one of the best darn cooks I have ever met, in this clip Melissa describes her butter beans as “slap-yo-mama good”! While my heart is heavy, it is also at peace knowing that this wonderful, beautiful, talented, accomplished and compassionate woman is no longer suffering. Rest in peace, Sweet Melissa—you will be remembered often and fondly.
If there is a silver lining to loss and grief, perhaps it is that these painful emotions have a way of making us think about what we value in life, what we hold dear to our hearts, what is important to us. Our values serve as our “North star,” guiding our thoughts, intentions and actions each and every day. As a therapist, I recognize that emotions—while very important to observe and respect—are dynamic and fleeting. A clear understanding of our values—what we want our lives to stand for—can help put feelings of sadness, despair, loss and frustration into the larger context of our lives. Through loss can come clarity of the bigger picture, as well as a renewed commitment to making each day on this wonderful earth count.
This week, I’m thinking about what’s important in my life. Obviously, I value friendships like the deep, meaningful bond I shared with Melissa. We grew up in the same small town and lost touch over the years. Then fate brought our paths together three years ago. We were a support to one another during a time when we both sorely needed it. I now understand that there was a reason for this happening and I will be forever grateful for that moment when we reconnected (thank you Facebook!). Supportive and mutually fulfilling friendships have the power to sustain and rejuvenate our souls, even if just through a shared laugh, a knowing glance or a simple display of love, support and validation. I value my family—both the wonderful Georgia folks I came from and the loving, blended unit I have created with my husband and two teenaged daughters. Families help to shape who we become, and provide unconditional love regardless of who we are. I value my health—particularly when a loved one succumbs to illness, I am grateful for every day, month and year that I am able to experience the bounty of this beautiful world. My health is increasingly valuable to me as I age—now in my 50s, I embrace the fact that aging is inevitable, but that aging with grace and care is a conscious choice. I take every opportunity to spend time with my daughters and dance to bad 80s music with my girlfriends. And it may sound silly, but I value my pets. Like Melissa, I am an avid animal lover. Even at the end of the longest, hardest days, a sloppy kiss from Bear the pug, a full-on stand-up hug from Bella the golden retriever, or a nuzzle with Peyton Manning, the hamster, makes me feel centered and brand new.
Another value of supreme importance in my life is my eating disorder recovery. Throughout my 30+ years in recovery from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, I continue to find that recovery is not ever really achieved, but rather it is an ongoing journey of returning my attention to that which I value. Like many individuals in eating disorder recovery, my mind may wander into old habits of wanting to numb pain or avoid sad or stressful feelings, like the loss of a dear friend. However, I realize so clearly now that the eating disorder devours my values—it challenges the integrity of my friendships, puts distance between me and my family and adversely impacts my physical and emotional health. Sustainable recovery demands that each and every day, I think about my values and take meaningful action toward the things that make me feel passionate, fulfilled and alive.
It appears that, even in death, Melissa continues to be a wonderful friend to me—always challenging me to be my best self. I know she would tell me to see through the tears to remember what I hold dear and to live accordingly, making the most of my time on this earth. I can hear her now saying, “Julie Dryden (my maiden name), you stop feeling bad right now. Put on a pretty dress and some lipstick, hold your head high and remember the good times we’ve shared!!! Girl, you know we’ve had plenty of those!”….Indeed we have, my Sweet Melissa…indeed we have!!
In honor of Melissa and your loved ones that have left this earth too soon, please take a moment today to think about your values. Living a thoughtful, meaningful life is perhaps the best tribute we can pay to these wonderful human beings.
What do you value? Has a loss ever helped you remember what is important in your life? I look forward to your insights and stories in the comments below.