Grieving the Life that Is Not; Accepting What Could Be

In this post I examine my deep sadness, and I find it grounded in the notion that I grieve the life that is not: not the life that I live now, but the life that could have been, if I pursued another path, but did not, and so I grieve the loss of that life that is not; not what is, but what could be. Grieving has manifested with great sadness, but by the end of this post I find my way toward new possibilities grounded in acceptance.

On its face, one would think grieving a devastating medical diagnosis (c71.3) would manifest sadness involving the future loss of one’s life that he is accustomed to living and the attendant worries about his spouse, their children, family, friends, relatives, coworkers, and so on. We fear our deaths, and we fear how others will fare after our passing, and so it is reasonable to guess that we grieve the loss of our actual lives, as they exist today. This is grieving the life that is.

Surprisingly, I grieve the loss of my life as it could be, what I have called, the life that is not. I grieve the many possible lives that could be mine, or could have been, but now fold under the faculty of imagination. I stand only to lose the life that I lead today. Most generously, the life I could live in five or six years time, which significantly limits the range of possibilities that once were.

I acknowledge this grief is self-centered, and I offer little defense of this perspective other than to gesture toward the careful end of life planning and estate documents I have prepared with my wife, the commitment I have made to my children to seek happy moments for memory-building each day–difficult as those moments are to find some days, and to remind myself and others that my motivation toward writing, speaking, and meeting with researchers, clinicians, and those in training, is to leverage my experience in service of benefitting other patients who face their own grieving for the loss of what could be, but is not.

Quantum mechanics describes a wave function. The wave function describes probable positions of theoretical constituents of a quantum system where the exact position of entities cannot be determined, or predicted, without taking a measurement. This is a very sloppy summary, but it is helpful. Stay with me.

In more plain language, by way of example, here is a picture of physics pre-quantum revolution. We could take the initial conditions of a baseball duel between pitcher and batter, accounting for pitch speed, bat speed, ball spin, pitch trajectory, initial moment of impact, and so on, using classical mechanics, a physicist may derive an accurate prediction of exit velocity, trajectory, and distance travelled of the ball leaving the bat. The physicist could say, “here is where the ball will land,” and we could find the ball actually landed in just that spot.

Classical mechanics, though fraught with some intractable problems, is elegant because the theory space between what is predicted and what is actual, is narrow. Given a complete set of initial conditions, classical mechanics could predict the past and future universe. All of it. The first grand system to unify earthly and cosmic phenomena. Think of the scope, power, and satisfaction of theoreticians working in this domain! Little in a classical system is left to uncertainty. The world is determined.

In the quantum system, we no longer have bats and balls. There are instead theoretical entities such as electrons, which are very little like a ball as we conceive of the term, but are “smudges” in spacetime that can never be fully accounted for. The physicist instead accounts for the electron’s position by way of a wave function, a mathematical prediction of the many possible locations of an electron. A measurement can be taken to more accurately define the position of the electron; once the measurement is taken, the wave function, the description of possible locations, ‘collapses.’ The quantum system is uncertain, its theoretical picture of the world is unverifiable, if we take verification to be something we “see” with our eyes, and not merely detection by computerized instruments. Einstein famously resisted adoption of the quantum world finding it to be too indeterminate.

My life no longer resides in the determinate world of classical mechanics. I am an uncertain entity defined by statistical possibilities.

I grieve the approaching collapse of my wave function.

I accompany Whitney to work each Wednesday. She treats patients admitted to the hospital. I sit outside of the Starbucks, drinking coffee, reading, and writing. This is my favorite activity because it places me in the presence of surgeons, oncologists, internal medicine physicians, radiologists, nurses, therapists, and medical students.

I eavesdrop on conversations about rounds and residents. I discern what the med students are studying by listening closely to their peer-to-peer flash card quizzes. I listen for terminology that I may be able to define.

On pains of extending a metaphor beyond its usefulness, I imagine a possible world where I became a surgeon to resect my tumor, not the patient. That wave function has collapsed on my present location, outside of the Starbucks, jeans and flannel shirt, not in scrubs and gowns, stethoscope tasseled around my neck, leading the cadre of residents into the operating room.

Naturally people often ask me how I am doing. “I am doing well,” I say, “I am rebounding from my last chemo round, and my energy is coming back.” Of course this is a superficial response to a superficial question, but it is how we get along in the world, interacting with others, prioritizing politeness over candor for the sake of cooperative living, and insofar as I tend toward politeness, I have few complaints with these social norms.

Though should I be candid.

I am very, very sad.

I am not sad for losing my actual life–the life that is. My wife is strong, my kids are emotionally mature, our extended families are active in our lives, our communities of support share our values, our life insurance policies, college funds, and savings accounts will not support my family indefinitely, but all will be well beyond my passing. There is sadness here, but there is also my supreme confidence that Whitney, with an army of support behind her, will see our kids through, toward successful lives, relationships, and children of their own.

When I reflect on my deep sadness, I find this feeling grounded in the loss of the life that could have been, but is not. The range of possibilities narrow more each day. I stick my nose into medical journals and pre-med text books in a naive and misguided pursuit of theories and terminology that at some future time I apply to a school of medicine. I yearn for a career in medicine. We have terrific accounts of physicians turned patient, why not patient turned physician, I wonder. To dwell more on this failing and naive hope for the future is to further exaggerate the life that is not, proportional, if not causally connected, to my deep sadness. The determinate and certain classical world is now overthrown by the uncertain predictions of statistical probabilities.

Friends, as I take myself to be in the presence of narrowing possibilities, sitting outside of the hospital Starbucks, know that I am pressing myself to learn more, to work harder, to meet more clinicians, to schedule more speaking events. Grieving is a process toward acceptance, and acceptance of a current state is a measurement taken. With new data in hand, perhaps it is time to revise my initial conditions and be open to a refreshed range of possibilities that exist in this new reality of not what is, but instead, what could be.

3 thoughts on “Grieving the Life that Is Not; Accepting What Could Be

  1. This is a searingly honest, beautifully written, heartfelt post. I identify with so much of what you’re saying. Thank you for writing and for sharing. The cliches of living each day as it comes, carpe diem and on and on are all… true.


  2. Adam, very powerful, highly insightful, emotionally challenging words. Having had 2 relatives go through the same journey as you, it brings back memories of them as well as the grieving for them of the potentials lost as well as the hard journey that lay before them. I wish you well. I pray the industry of my employment comes up with the miracle you need to give you back some of the lost potential life you might have had and reinvigorates your wave.


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