‘Survival Lessons’ offers paths to hope

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 1, 2013

“Survival Lessons,” by Alice Hoffman. 2013. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 83 pp. $13.95.
The holiday season brings a mixture of joy and sadness.
It seems appropriate, then, that Alice Hoffman’s thin volume, “Survival Lessons,” has been released. Hoffman writes about surviving breast cancer, but for the rest of us, her simple words and declarative sentences strike a chord, as well.
We are all survivors of some tragedy or sadness. It may be the loss of someone dear to us. It may be the decline of a parents’ health or the discovery of your own chronic illness.
Hoffman says she wrote the book “to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss.”
Joy must have its equal sorrow to mean anything. Hoffman writes, “It is difficult to measure a personal tragedy. How much bad fortune does it take to destroy a person?”
Many times, a new person is born of that destruction, a new resolve forms. There’s no use comparing your losses or setback to others’.
Here’s fabulous advice: “Start by eating chocolate.” (It worked for Harry Potter when he faced the Dementors.) Hoffman suggests the suffering person fix favorite foods or take a cooking class. To concoct your first remedy, Hoffman helpfully supplies her friend Maclin’s brownie recipe. Just reading it can be cheering.
Choose your friends, she says, and that’s wise advice. She gravitated toward teens with dreams and deep emotions and older people who had seen themselves change over time. Change is hard, especially when it comes suddenly. Talking to older people helped her accept that change is just part of life.
Choose whose advice to follow. Hoffman found her grandmother’s advice to be the truest: “You only live once and that passes by fast.” And while you’re under stress, she adds, pick your family — or make one. “Relatives can be tricky when you are undergoing treatment for a disease or are in the throes of any sort of tragedy.” And, boy, is she right. Some relatives shrink away, not knowing what to do; some smother you with concern; still others offer horror stories they’ve heard about your situation. “Only answer the phone when you want to,” Hoffman writes.
She realizes, by spending time with her sister-in-law, who is dying of cancer, that the best treatment is love. Just let the person know that you love them. Don’t make up lies. Just listen and love.
“Write your troubles on a slip of paper, and burn it.” This is great advice for big troubles and small. It could get you through a tough week at home or work. You might find yourself letting go of those troubles.
“Don’t judge yourself harshly. Don’t listen to people who do.” Again, great advice for day-to-day life, crisis or not.
Accept your sorrow, Hoffman writes. Accept it, and control it. Do something positive to counteract your sorrow. Hoffman, who had breast cancer, chose to raise funds for breast cancer research. She donated her advance for the book to a breast cancer center.
Keep dreaming, then try something new. Give away your old clothes. Knit a hat with the pattern Hoffman provides from her cousin, Lisa.
“Time is different now. Don’t worry about wasting it. It belongs to you.” You don’t owe anyone else your time. Your time is recovery time.
Hoffman makes another very good point: Tell your story the way you want to. Don’t let it be someone else’s version. Be honest with your children, and reassure them you will still play with them and take care of them. Do something fun with them and hold on to that memory.
Hoffman is not the first woman to face breast cancer, nor the first writer. Plenty of authors have written about loss and survival. Hoffman’s book may be just the thing to pass on to your struggling friend who needs a little understanding and a ray of hope. Hoffman’s emphasis on choosing, on taking action is good for all of us, no matter what our circumstances.