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Teacher. Student. Advocate. Personal essays about grief, loss, mindfulness, mental health, and the complexities of being human.
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I kick off my shoes, tuck my legs up next to me, and sink into the soft folds of the overworn sofa, settling into the cozy room across from my therapist, Helen, as she putters around the office, finishing up paperwork from her previous client. Helen is not the first therapist I’ve seen since my son, Sam, was diagnosed with a terminal type of brain cancer called DIPG, but she is the first I have seen regularly. Helen came highly recommended, but past experiences with therapists gave me a healthy dose of skepticism and mistrust.

In early 2014, six months…

Photo of Charleston harbor by Nick Dominguez on Unsplash

I stand on a road called Middle Street that bisects a park called Alhambra. To my left are a series of playgrounds shaded by a towering live oak tree dripping with Spanish moss. Delighted squeals puncture my brain as toddlers fly through muggy air on swings. I listen with envy as moms chat about healthy snacks their kids will actually eat and the difficulties of bedtime. The clicking of sprinklers watering the yards at the opulent homes that border the park serves as the percussion. To my right is a nearly empty green space and, beyond that, Charleston Harbor. It’s…

Photo by Michael L on Unsplash

When I was eight years old, I kicked a nun. To be fair, she was chasing my best friend, Mike, around a classroom trying to whack him with her cane. To be fair to the nun, Mike and I were doing our damnedest to make the first communion classes she taught at All Saints Catholic Church a living hell. We interrupted her lessons consistently with giggles and sarcastic statements or questions like, “that makes no sense” and, “what about the dinosaurs?” The nun, uninterested in our critiques and flustered by our persistence, relegated us to opposite ends of the classroom…

“You’ve been getting sick a lot!” my sister texted. I shrugged it off. We’re close. We worry about each other. I wasn’t worried though. My mind landed on the obvious reason for my consistent illnesses. I have two young daughters in elementary school; they’re germ factories, I rationalized. Plus, my symptoms were not that concerning. I was groggy, grumpy, had a headache, felt as if my body was fighting something off.

After a few months of “getting sick a lot,” my husband and I noticed a pattern: I always felt sick around the middle of every month. This was the…

Lived Through This

Photo: eranicle / Getty Images

Everything is going to be okay.

We whisper it to our children when they skin their knees or have a fight with a friend. We proclaim it to those who have lost their job, their partner, their health. We post it on Instagram, showcasing our optimism. We repeat it like a mantra to ease our own anxiety.

Everything is going to be okay.

We assert it to bolster our conviction that the pain is temporary or even inflated. …

In July of 2013, my two-year-old son was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Ten days later, I delivered twin daughters. Outside Sam’s hospital room, just moments after receiving his fatal diagnosis, my husband, Mike, and I vowed to do everything in our power to make Sam happy.

At first, we sought happiness in the rare, in the extravagant, in the exclusive. We watched whale sharks glide through impossibly large tanks on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Atlanta aquarium, sparred with Captain Hook at a character breakfast in Disney World, roared at the marble lions that stood watch over the…

This Is Us

The author with her son.
Sam, age 5

Nearly five years ago, I knelt before my five-year-old son Sam in the basement of our friend’s home. The room was filled with a mishmash of furniture from upstairs and outside to accommodate all the people who had come to say goodbye. Sarah, Sam’s hospice nurse, was giving us directions for delivering morphine and other end-of-life medications. She told us to measure Sam’s life in “hours to days.” Sam had started to lose the ability to swallow. It was only a matter of time before he struggled to breathe.

I snuck off to the bathroom to quietly vomit, a habit…

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve always had an acute awareness of justice, a hypersensitive internal fairness meter. When things are out of balance, it leaves me with an irritating sense of discomfort, kinetic energy that burns until I attempt to right the wrongs I encounter.

Often those wrongs are small, an everyday social accounting of who owes what or who is doing more than their fair share, and my actions serve to merely re-balance social ledgers. I had this roommate after college: Emily. …

I am sitting in a brightly lit, modern conference room on the 11th floor of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, surrounded by strangers, desperately wiping the tears streaming down my cheeks and choking back the sobs threatening to accompany them. It is not the first conference of this kind that I have attended nor is it the first time I have actively engaged with the disease that ended my five-year-old son’s life.

I like to think I swim in the deep end of Sam’s disease. I have listened to doctors present on the intricacies of Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Gliomas (DIPG)…

Sam, age 5, practicing yoga. Photo courtesy of author.

I started practicing yoga consistently about a year before my son, Sam, died. I had tried yoga in the past, but as a form of exercise. In the months preceding and following Sam’s death, yoga became something else entirely. It gave me permission to spend time focusing on simple things like my breath and my body. It gave me a safe place to go. Yoga helped me find the spaces between and, in the process, a truer version of myself.

Sam was born with a rare, genetic condition called Ollier’s disease. We first noticed it when he was six months…

Erin Benson

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