Happy Birthday, Claire

TW: terminal illness and death.

Today is what would’ve been Claire Wineland’s twenty-fifth birthday and even though she died in 2018, I still think of her often. I wanted to do something for her birthday and since I hadn’t yet watched the documentary about her that was released after her death, I decided it was time to watch it, even if it would make me cry (not much of a spoiler: it did). She was an incredible person and it breaks my heart that she’s no longer here, that she didn’t get the chance to live a life she fought so hard for and saw so much potential in.

As I said, I wanted to honour her birthday so I sat down and watched the documentary; here are some of my thoughts…

It’s a beautifully made documentary and a beautiful tribute to Claire and the message that she dedicated her life to sharing with people. You get a real sense of her: she’s so articulate and eloquent but she doesn’t take herself too seriously (and ‘Little Claire,’ as she refers to herself, is so cute). So much of what she said was so poignant and moving and, as always, I felt deeply inspired by her words. It also gives you real insight into what living with Cystic Fibrosis is like, as much as you can as someone on the outside, and while her experiences are very specific to Cystic Fibrosis, I could also see a lot of broader parallels as a person with multiple disabilities.

I found the second half (approximately) especially emotional because I remember experiencing it in real time: watching her videos, donating to her gofundme and watching the total rise and rise, watching her live on social media when she got the call from the hospital for the transplant, waiting for news, and then finally hearing that she’d died. I remember it all so vividly. And seeing the video about needing new lungs now, hearing her say, “There’s so much more I wanna do,” makes me so deeply sad because everyone was so hopeful throughout the transplant process but then, suddenly, it was over and Claire was gone. There was so much she wanted to do and she truly saw how much she could do in this world and she didn’t get the chance; that still makes me so very sad.

The montage at the end was gorgeous and the ending was perfect. As I said, it’s beautiful and I feel like, as familiar as I was with Claire’s videos and therefore her approach to life and so on, I walked away from the documentary with a better understanding of her and her message.

There are so many great quotes throughout the documentary but here are a few that stuck out to me…

  • “The truth is: people who are sick, people who have suffered have something beautiful to give to the world. So, for me, it was really important to see people who were sick who were thriving… It’s important to have people who are sick who are actually living full lives so that kids like me, like Little Claire, doesn’t have to feel like all there is in the world is being someone’s pity case. You know, that there’s a life for her to live. And that it’s going to be wonderful.”
  • “Innovation doesn’t happen because there’s some person who’s in a great circumstance and everything’s going well and they just get on a roll and they make something for the world. Innovation happens, art happens, because of suffering.”
  • “We’re all just trying to not feel so alone and to feel like we have something that is worth giving.”
  • “There’s this notion that we go through life with that, if we’re just better… If we just do more, if we just fix ourselves more, if we become better people, if we get healthy […] Once you’re healthy, then you can live your life. Once you’re healthy, then you’ll be happy. Once you’re healthy, then you’ll be okay. And we all go through life like that, not just sick people… all of us. Like, once we’re rich we’ll be okay; once we’re in love we’ll be okay; once we have a family, we’ll be okay. Health itself is never gonna make your life better but for some reason, people don’t wanna frame it that way. If I was to sit here and say, ‘money doesn’t equal happiness – it’s what you do with the money,’ you’d be like, ‘Yeah, completely.’ But if I was to say, you know, ‘being healthy doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with the health…’ People don’t like hearing that necessarily.”
  • When talking about her near death (and actual death) experience: “And after the terror left, there was this grief, you know? Like, I grieved how much potential there was in me and how much of that I didn’t utilise in the time I had. And I grieved it. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t, like, ‘Oh god, I don’t wanna die.’ It was, like, ‘Wow. There is so much that a human being is capable of doing and I won’t be able to do that.'” [This moment made me cry and seeing that the memory moved Claire to tears as well made me so incredibly sad and touched that it was something they shared with us; it was very moving and had a big impact on me.]
  • “For me, what purpose really meant was changing the conversation around someone who’s sick where they have to wait and wait and wait until the day that they’re healthy before they do anything, to this notion that I could be exactly who I was in the moment with all of my mess ups and my failures and my pain and my complications, that I could be a sick person and still have something to give, still have a life worth living.”
  • “Ever since the time I was a kid… and I think everyone has this experience… you’re taught that someone else is gonna do it, there’s someone else who knows more than you, someone else who can do this better, you’re not there yet, you’re not ready. And I realised that I can’t spend my entire life waiting for someone to give me permission to live a life that I’m proud of.”
  • “I think everything good in my life has come from my sickness and that’s a terrifying thing to admit to someone because then, you know, what else is there?”
  • “There is a really fine line between wanting something because of what you can give with that thing versus wanting it because you think it’s gonna make life better.”

I will also be making a donation to Claire’s Place Foundation as well. Claire had a profound effect on my life and I want to pay that forward. I’ll never been able to thank her for how she’s helped me but I can do my best to follow the example that she led by, to follow the message that she embodied.

I really recommend watching this documentary, especially if you or someone close to you is living with a serious illness or disability. Having said that, it’s very emotional so please take care of yourself if you’re going to sit down and watch it.

I’m sending all of my love to Claire’s loved ones, especially today.

Mourning A Public Figure

Last week was the two year anniversary of Claire Wineland’s death. She was a twenty one year old activist, raising awareness around Cystic Fibrosis and founding Claire’s Place Foundation to support children with Cystic Fibrosis and their families. She spoke at many conferences (including TEDx and the International Respiratory Convention and Exhibition) and posted multiple videos on YouTube, talking about her illness but also her life and her thoughts on various subjects.

In 2018, she went into hospital for a double lung transplant. I remember watching the Instagram Live where she announced that she’d received the call as she dashed around her home, gathering everything she needed. It was so exciting and I was so happy for her. She had the surgery and everything seemed to be going well. But then she had a stroke and a week later, according to her advanced directive, was taken off life support. She died on the 2nd September 2018 at the age of twenty one. I wrote several posts about her, including one in remembrance.

I was deeply upset at the news of Claire’s death. When I discovered her YouTube videos in mid-2017, I instantly fell in love with her personality, her eloquence, her thoughtfulness. I really felt a lot of the ideas she expressed and despite the fact that we’d had very different life experiences, it felt like we had something in common, something in the way we thought and felt. And despite only having a few interactions on Twitter, I felt a connection to her – obviously not the same connection as the ones I have with my friends, for example, but a connection nonetheless. She had a big impact on my life and when she died, I felt like I could feel the edges of the space in which she’d previously existed, like there was a hole where she’d been. It was a very distressing feeling.

Two years later and I still feel her loss. She was so full of life. You know how some people just seem bigger than others, have minds somehow more infinite, have something extra special about them? That was always the way Claire felt to me. I’d felt so sure that I’d watch her go on to do even more great things. Her death felt so unfair and it still does. It still hurts. The documentary about her, CLAIRE, came out on the first anniversary of her death and as much as I want to watch it, I haven’t been able to. It’s just felt too hard. One day, I will but I just haven’t felt ready.

Over the last few years, I’ve had several similar experiences. The first, I believe, was Cory Monteith in 2013. I was still watching Glee at the time and he was so young; his death was so sudden. Then there was David Bowie, who has always been incredibly important to my brother, and Alan Rickman, who had been a consistent presence in my life through his role in the Harry Potter films. If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you’ll know how important Harry Potter has been throughout my life. And more recently, there have been the deaths of Cady Groves, a singer I’ve been a fan of for a decade, and Naya Rivera, another Glee alumni.

I struggled with each of these deaths, all of these people having had an impact on my life. But I think the only death that has had as dramatic an effect on me as Claire Wineland’s was that of Christina Grimmie. I’d been following Christina on YouTube for years; I just fell in love with her voice and her piano playing, how unapologetically herself she was. She was about my age and pursuing music so it’s not surprising that I related to her. But with managing both my mental health and university, I’d fallen behind on a lot of people in my social media bubble, Christina included. Then I woke up one day and she was gone; I still remember the moment I found out. I was stuck in a state of paralysed shock for days and I had nightmares that went on for months. Much like with Claire, I felt like there was a hole in the fabric of the universe where Christina had been, should still be. Even now, I still think of her often.

Grieving for a celebrity or public figure can feel like a bit of a minefield, I think. There’s the internal conflict: you didn’t know them personally but the feelings are still very powerful. Plus there are always people ready to tell you that you don’t have the right to mourn someone you never actually knew and because you didn’t know them, whatever you’re feeling can’t be grief. But personally, I don’t agree.

Grief is an incredibly complex emotion. I don’t think anyone truly understands it. Personally, I wouldn’t classify it as a single emotion; I see it more as an umbrella term, a checklist of things you may experience although you won’t necessarily experience all of them. I don’t think there’s a big enough word to describe what we go through when we’re grieving. It’s a natural disaster, an emotional natural disaster. It’s so complicated and having lived through both the losses of people in my life and public figures I cared (and still care) about, it’s my experience that the two are definitely different (having said that, we could have a whole other conversation about how the grief for each person is completely different) but that they’re both real and they’re both profound.

I definitely want to write more posts about grief but I want to keep this one to the grieving of a public figure. As I said, it is, of course, different to losing a person who is physically in your life but if you feel a connection to someone, it is inevitable that their death will be painful. As far as I’m concerned, that connection is the key. Whether they’re an actor, singer, writer, activist… they’re all reaching out, with their stories, their songs, their words. They’re reaching out with the intention of creating a connection with another person, a person who finds meaning in what they have to say. And I think it’s fair to say that – often – the deepest connections are the ones that are built from the most personal places (for example, their presence or their work has gotten you through a difficult time, you relate strongly to something they’ve said or created, etc). So of course we would feel the loss that connection. Of course it would be painful and distressing and maybe even traumatic.

And then there’s the moving forward to consider. There will always be things that remind you of them, such as events they would go to or public appearances they’d make. And in the case of creatives, yes, we will always have their past work but that may be difficult to consume again: the emotions and memories associated with them may be overwhelming; it may be painful because it reminds you that they’re no longer here; if they helped you through difficult times, it may be difficult knowing that they won’t be there to help you through any future hard times; knowing that they’ll never create or release anything new may be distressing, especially when the release of new work was a big occasion in your life.

I think that the only way to truly move through an event like this is to talk about it or, at the very least, express your emotions:

  • Hopefully your loved ones will understand what you’re going through, especially if you’ve mentioned this person before or they’ve seen or heard you consuming their content, whether that’s listening to their music, watching their videos, or reading their works. If you can talk to someone close to you and at least get your emotions out of your body; sometimes I think that keeping the emotions stored inside your body only makes them harder to shift further down the road. (If someone you don’t feel comfortable telling the whole truth asks you why you’re upset, you can always tell them that a friend or someone you know has died – that will explain your mood and they’re unlikely to ask too many questions.)
  • You can express your feelings on social media, if you feel comfortable sharing with an unknown audience. Sometimes that can be too scary but sometimes it can be cathartic to put your thoughts out into the world, not knowing where they’ll go or who they’ll reach.
  • You can write a letter to the person who has died. I’ve always found writing to be a good way of getting my emotions out. If you want to, you could post it online if you keep a blog or something similar, or you could simply keep it for yourself as a reminder of what they meant to you and everything you felt at that particular moment in time. When it comes to such an emotionally charged moment, in the future you may want to remember everything about the experience. You may not, of course, but you can’t know that in the present moment.
  • I’ve always found journaling to be very helpful in coping with and managing the ebb and flow of my emotions. Since it’s just for me, I can feel and say whatever I like without fear of judgement, which I think allows me to move through each emotion with less friction. Putting words to what I’m feeling somehow makes it all easier to process and work through. It doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings go away, but the strength of them does become easier to cope with. And then at some point, they simply become a part of you, a piece in your mosaic.

I’m sure there’s more to say. When it comes to grief, there always is. But I think I’ll leave it there. I hope you leave this post knowing that whoever or whatever you grieve for, your grief is valid and I hope that, if you’re going through any kind of grief, that you’ve found some way to manage it and/or that you have people to support you. I’m not sure if it ever goes away but it does change. Life goes on, even if it feels unbearably unfair. So carry with you the gifts they gave you and try to do some of the good that they would be doing were they still here.

Remembering Claire Wineland

I couldn’t not acknowledge that Claire Wineland died on Sunday. I still don’t really know what to say; my emotions are all over the place. But I did want to say this: I might not have known her in the traditional sense – we never met and our relationship consisted of a few interactions on Twitter – but she deeply inspired me and therefore meant a lot to me. I will miss her tremendously and my thoughts are with her friends and family. She was so, so special and her impact is on-going, like the ripples you see when you throw a pebble into a pond.

So, with all of that said, I wanted to share one of her TED talks. She talks about living with Cystic Fibrosis, how hard it is, and how living with an illness can affect your perspective, as well as how people treat you. She’s an amazing speaker.

“You can have a painful life, you can suffer, you can experience what it feels like to be a human being – all those messy and gross emotions – and yet you can make a life for yourself that you are very, very proud of.”

“I wanted to share the fact that you can suffer and be okay. You can suffer and still make something. That the quality of your life isn’t determined by whether you’re healthy or sick or rich or poor. Not at all. It’s determined by what you make out of your experience as a human being, out of the embarrassing moments and the painful moments. It’s what you make and what you give from that place.”

She talks about reading a book by Stephen Hawking as a young teenager and learning about space and suns and black holes. Her enthusiasm makes me laugh out loud (and then cry). And that led her to learning about Stephen Hawking himself and the disease he lived with and all that he contributed to society anyway. He was her first role model.

She talks about how she questioned why she had to work so hard just to stay alive and how she was desperately looking for something to contribute, something to give her life meaning. She wanted more than just surviving. And then, at thirteen, she almost died and went into a coma that no one thought she’d come out of. But she did and she was just blown away by all the support she received. That made her realise that that is not the case in many families living with Cystic Fibrosis and so she created her foundation, The Claire’s Place Foundation, to assist those families.

Six years on, she was struck with the realisation that she’d become the person that she had been looking for, someone to look up to who was sick and still contributing to the world. She was using her experience to give something and she was living a life she was proud of, that thirteen year old her would be proud of.

“And that’s all that we can have in life. Because the truth is, it’s not about being happy, right? Life isn’t about just trying to be happy. Honestly, happiness is a Dopamine in the brain. If I was to sit here and tell you all to just be happy, I’d just tell you all to go smoke a joint and listen to Bob Marley and just call it a day. We don’t need any of this TEDx stuff, you know? Life isn’t about being happy. Life is a rollercoaster of crazy emotions: one second you’re fine and the next second you feel lonely and despair and like nothing’s ever gonna be okay again. It’s not about emotions; it’s not about how you feel second to second. It’s about what you’re making of your life and whether you can find a deep pride in who you are and what you’ve given because that’s so much more impactful, so much deeper than whether you’re happy, or content, or joyful. It’s okay to feel pain. In fact, if you can actually experience it without judgement, without, you know, trying to fix anything. Nothing’s wrong with any of you. Nothing’s wrong with me. I don’t care that I’m sick. At all. Genuinely. If a cure came tomorrow, I wouldn’t care. Because that has not determined the quality of my life. I’m not trying to fix myself. My suffering has given me so much, and I’ve been able to make something and give something to people from it.”

In some ways, it’s hard to watch because it’s devastating to see her so engaged and dynamic and thoughtful and funny and know she’s not here anymore. It’s hard to watch her talk about surviving the odds, surviving the coma she was in at thirteen, knowing that she didn’t survive the odds this time. But at the same time, this video is a tiny piece of proof amongst all the noise that she WAS here, that she WAS so engaged and dynamic and thoughtful and funny.

As I said, I will miss Claire immensely but I’m incredibly grateful to have videos like these to watch on the hardest days.