Genni Lee Hester

learning life by way of death


Cancer sucks. Unlike the graceful fall of leaves that seem to suspend in the air, the phenomenon of cancer feels like a steep fall off a cliff. Flesh deteriorates, family bonds strain—the entire drop lacks any sense of control.

My truth is that my grandmother was my world: my primary caregiver plus closest confidant. But that is only half of my truth; the other half, which took me so long to say or write, is that my Nanny died of Glioblastoma (the most aggressive form of malignant brain tumors, which also took the life of Senator Ted Kennedy) on June 28, 2010.  Last Saturday was her 64th Wedding Anniversary and today would have been her 81st birthday.

Though the first year was filled with mourning and shock, I knew from the moment of my grandmother’s passing that I had a choice: I could learn from this unbearable experience and live a life of honor that she would have been proud of, or I could become bitter and resentful. A few years later I still have bitter and resentful days—but I am constantly trying to apply everything I learned from Viola Hester.

In this post I want to share what I learned from my grandmother through the way she lived and the way she died. I use the way purposely throughout this entry. Taoism regards the Tao as a way of being, the path. In spite of the fact that she was far from being Taoist, she truly embodied a life of simplicity and compassion connected with her most authentic self. Consequently she did not merely teach what virtue is—through the way she lived, she set an example of a virtuous life.

Because of this example I learned:

1. Be yourself: I love to dance; there were plenty of late night dance parties in the cancer ward of the hospital. My grandmother really encouraged me to not care about what others think. I recognize that we all do on some level and it can be a struggle, but it really feels wonderful when all inhibitions float away.

2. Be autodidactic: Nanny did not have a college or even high school diploma – she grew up in the school of hard knocks. She survived the depression, several wars, and three kids. She loved to read and was a well-informed American Citizen. She adored Hilary Clinton, but I think Bill’s saxophone skills swooned her every time.

3. Be giving: As a matriarch she set an example of true selflessness. She woke at five in the morning and went to bed after ten seven days a week. The only person she forgot to take care of was herself.

The lessons I learned from her death are not as defined, though they are just as meaningful. Instead of allowing the cancer, which killed my grandmother’s physical body to also kill my own spirit, I have (in turns successful and unsuccessful) attempted to learn from the experience – to be grateful for my suffering. Foremost I am deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to take care of her in her time of need. To show up for her in the last few weeks of her life in the same way she showed up for me through the years taught me much about true love. To bathe, change the diaper, and feed someone who did those same acts of love for you brought life full circle. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning Victor Frankl captures this idea best: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”

Ultimately I hope my little bit of truth, the story of my lived experience, injects you with whatever medicine you may need. Perhaps hope for those who have recently lost someone, inspiration for those who are lost, and courage for those who are fearful that this will one day be their own truth. Just as it is challenging to describe the scent of a rose, it is difficult to come to terms with the complexities of death. To know there is more than thorns in death—that there is an exquisite pink rose somewhere above—is helpful.


here is Nanny dancing through the pain a few weeks before her passing

Here is Nanny dancing through the pain a few weeks before her passing.


“Sometimes when I think about death I have a feeling of curiosity and this makes it much easier for me to accept death,” Tenzin Gyatso,
His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama.


For every view this post receives by June 28th, 2013 I will donate $1
to in her honor (up to $500). Please leave comments below about your own loved ones and your own experience with death. If you need any support or have questions please e-mail me at (Om Shanti).


4 thoughts on “learning life by way of death

  1. what an inspiring post! love it!

  2. I Love You Mom, Thanks Gen Love you too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s