Out in the Open

What multiple near-death experiences taught this woman about how to live

Mary Elizabeth Williams was diagnosed with melanoma, and expected to die. A few years later, her daughter nearly died of sepsis. She speaks with Piya about how those health scares gave her a deep appreciation for the small things in life, and led her to reframe death from a matter of loss, to a natural part of life.

'Death is not losing - death is a part of life', says Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams and her daughter both had separate, unrelated health scares that nearly took their lives. (Submitted by Mary Elizabeth Williams)
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This story was originally published on January 11, 2019.

Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks we should get more comfortable talking about death.

"Death is not losing. Death is a part of life. It is a natural thing," she told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay. "If you can experience [life] with the knowledge of that, as opposed to this gritted teeth, 'nothing's ever gonna get me' attitude, then you have space for beauty and love and acceptance."

Williams came to this perspective after multiple close brushes with death in her family.

In 2010, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, underwent surgery and quickly recovered. But the following year, she was rediagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma — a dangerous form of cancer that, at the time, was expected to kill her.

I rather would take a thousand Stage 4 cancer diagnoses on myself, than spend one minute looking at my child in the emergency room. - Mary Elizabeth Williams

Fortunately for Williams, three months after participating in a new immunology treatment, no evidence of the disease remained.

The near-death experience inspired her to see life differently.

"What I have noticed is not this big bucket list sense of the big picture, but a really deep, profound appreciation of the small picture," she said, referencing the ability to drink a cup of coffee in the morning, or watch a television show with her children. "Those are the things that make my life beautiful."

But even with that newfound outlook, Williams found herself in complete shock three years later when her daughter's life was suddenly put in danger.

'I've become a much more paranoid person'

When Williams' daughter was 16 years old, an initial fever quickly turned out to be much worse. Before she could make it to a scheduled doctor's appointment, she went into septic shock and was put into intensive care. The severe sepsis was later found to be based on strep throat.

Williams said seeing her daughter go through a near-death experience was far worse than having to go through her own.

"I rather would take a thousand Stage 4 cancer diagnoses on myself, than spend one minute looking at my child in the emergency room," said Williams.

Mary Elizabeth Williams' daughter nearly died of sepsis. (Submitted by Mary Elizabeth Williams)

She became more paranoid as a parent, had to go on anti-anxiety medication, and was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Despite her struggles, Williams has learned that talking about them allows her to manage them.

"We are a really mortality-denying, sickness-denying, trauma-denying culture. And it is very difficult to openly experience suffering. It makes people very uncomfortable. And yet we all suffer, we all grieve, we all get sick, we all have these traumatic events."

Today, Williams and her daughter are both in good health.

And although she feels that life was easier when her family didn't have to think about death all the time, it has also brought them a new appreciation of the time they have together.

"Whatever doesn't kill you kind of messes you up and roughs you up in really significant ways. But what it also does... I hope it does give you more generosity of spirit."


This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Close Calls".

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