THE TWIST: Reflections on Grief and Growth With Samantha Smith

31st, 2017
Keyhole - Digital Marketing Agency - Joe Dudeck
Joe Dudeck
President + Founder
Categories: Interviews
31st, 2017
Keyhole - Digital Marketing Agency - Joe Dudeck
Joe Dudeck
President + Founder
Categories: Interviews

The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.

After enduring a tumultuous childhood, all seemed well for Samantha Stage when she first met Andrew Smith in high school and later married the Butler University basketball star at the age of 23.

But just two years into their marriage, life turned upside down when Andrew was diagnosed with cancer while playing basketball overseas. And before they knew it, the pair was somewhat unexpectedly thrust into a public battle with this disease for the next to years. In 2016, it eventually claimed Andrew’s life, and Samantha found herself widowed.

But their story did not end there. Today, Samantha Smith speaks regularly about the challenges from that overwhelming, yet refining, experience—helping people and businesses better realize their purpose. We met recently at The Neidhammer in downtown Indianapolis to discuss her relationship with Andrew, her steps toward public speaking, and the continual wrestling within her soul in this new season of life.

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On life shared with Andrew...

Joe: Talk a little bit about your upbringing.

Samantha Smith: I was born and raised here in Indy, but I came from a very dysfunctional family. It was myself and my two siblings … just kind of a crazy, crazy childhood with pretty much everything you can imagine: drugs and alcohol and some abuse there, but that led me to ultimately moving out of my house when I was 14. I ended up kind of bouncing around between teachers and coaches. I have always been really blessed with incredible role models and people who have kind of filled in the gaps there.

Growing up, I never really felt that void of parenting, because I always had really good people in my life. Even as an adult now … certainly I’m sure there’s resounding issues that come up from having a tough childhood. But you know, I’ve never felt like I did not had a mom or a dad, and that’s been a huge blessing. For me, that hasn’t been one of the issues that I’ve struggled with—having that void in my life.

So, it’s always kind of been a crazy life, and I think that ultimately led to frustration when Andrew got sick. Because it just always felt like one thing after another.

Joe: How did you and Andrew meet?

Samantha Smith: We met in high school, at Covenant Christian, a really small private school. I had landed with a family where the father at the time was the dean of the high school I went to and his wife was a middle school teacher of mine. Andrew, I felt like, brought stability and just a lot of happiness and stability. I always kind of felt that way. He was just kind of a constant. Andrew was just always really good, happy and level headed, and he came from a really solid background. So I just felt like I was evening out and getting that stability.

So, we met in high school and dated all through high school. And then, as he went on to Butler, the plan was always to get married. So the weekend he graduated, we got married — May 18th of 2013.

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Joe: Did you go to Butler too?

Samantha Smith: No, I went to the University of Indianapolis, and then did some online schooling through Liberty University. After we got married, he spent that whole summer just jumping on airplane after airplane, working at various NBA teams and everything. It was kind of a crazy mess from the get go, but it certainly brought a lot of excitement too. So we spent that summer just working through the NBA and all the ins and outs of that.

Joe: You traveled with him or you stayed there?

Samantha Smith: Sometimes I traveled with him. Typically, when he had just been gone for too long, I was like, “Okay, I’m getting on the airplane because you’ve been in Oklahoma for two weeks now, so I’m going to come out.” And again, we just got married, so we were just wanting to enjoy being a married couple.

And then it was the end of the summer. And all along we were really realistic that the NBA was going to be a stretch. It’s obviously not only one person’s dream; it’s a lot of people wanting to get after that.

Joe: Limited spots for sure.

Samantha Smith: Yes, and we knew it was going to take the exact right team to want to work with Andrew. He was always a really great, solid player, but you know he’s not your huge star that’s an obvious first draft sort of deal. So he was pretty honest, and we pretty much knew that it was going to be an overseas option. And that’s what happened. We ended up going to Lithuania. Well, he first did a stint in China for a month and then moved to Lithuania. I joined him there.

So we packed up our whole life, packed up our dog and went overseas. And that is probably the craziest world that I’ve ever lived in. Not even just Eastern Europe, but the basketball world of Eastern Europe. It’s just a whole other world out there.

But it was in November 2013, just a few months after we got married, when we discovered one of his lymph nodes starting to swell up. And there are a lot of reasons for that, so initially, we weren’t really concerned. Maybe it was a virus or something. But it became pretty clear shortly after, that there was a larger issue, and ultimately, we ended up doing some scans over there. As you can imagine, language barriers are already tough, but throwing medical terminology in just becomes crazy and almost unbearable. But we were able to make out that there was a tumor sitting in his chest, and they said, “You can either stay here and treat it or you can go home and treat it,” which was obviously a very easy decision for us.

Thirty-six hours later we were on a plane back to Chicago. We flew into O’Hare and drove right from the airport, dropped off our stuff at his parents’ house, and then went right to the hospital. We started immediately with treatment. We had sent over the scans and information to the doctors here in Indy, so we kind of had a baseline when we started. Although, we got in, and they said the imaging was all done wrong, so we had to redo everything.

So, it was in January of 2014 that he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—a very rare form of cancer that’s most common in really young children or really elderly patients. With Andrew being 23 at the time, they didn’t really know what to do. Put him in pediatrics, or handle him as an adult case?” His treatment ended up being a mix of that, but a really harsh one. In Andrew’s family, there was no medical history of cancer or any major medical problems. And Andrew was a professional athlete, so it was obviously, for a lot reasons, a huge shock for us. He’s young, no problems before, and—everybody says it—but you never think it’s going to be you. You never think you’re going to  be having this conversation with doctors, and certainly, in your early 20s, you don’t think those complications are coming.

So all of 2014 was just treatment and, you know, the ugliness of that. Everything that you read and see about chemotherapy—sickness and hair loss and weakness. At one point, he had to go into a medically-induced coma for a week, and that was, of course, really intense. All of 2014 was just spent in treatment, and those were with highs and lows of remission. At the end of 2014 is when we thought he hit remission, and the doctors felt like pretty good with where he was. And in our heads, that was kind of the end of that chapter. We really had thought that we’d kind of kicked that and we were ready to finally move forward as a married couple and just kind of live our lives. So we bought a house here in Irvington.

On the decision to share their story...

Joe: At this point in the process, was the journey fairly private?

Samantha Smith: Not necessarily. When we first came home, we didn’t let anybody know that we were home or what we were dealing with. Obviously, our heads were spinning from everything. So we were like, “We need to just keep this low key and keep this to ourselves until we even figure out what’s going on.” And that lasted about a month before people started seeing us around town. And then came the misinformation that it was lung cancer.

So, then, it was just a lot of misinformation. It was like, “Okay, we need to be able to control this a little bit more.” And that’s when our blog, Kicking Cancer with the Smiths, was birthed, just to be able to control the story, but also to communicate accurately that we are wanting prayer and wanting to support Andrew…but again, kind of on our terms. That was just a good source for me– also just therapeutically with writing; it was just a good tool for that.

Probably in mid-February is when we went public with everything. And then, from that point on, it was pretty public, but again, always on our terms. We would learn information about Andrew’s medical status, and then we would obviously take time to process ourselves before letting people know and letting the public know. So, there was always a gap in time between when we would tell people versus when we learned about it, because we needed to process a little bit…and because, inevitably, when you put something out there, out comes the opinions on what to do and what you shouldn’t be doing. That obviously gets heavy and gets overwhelming.

We needed that time to process and prepare our hearts for everyone’s opinions.

Joe: Was there a point in the process where you regretted your decision to go public?

Samantha Smith: A few times. I think more so when there was critique on the treatment side of it. At that point, you are just doing everything that you can and what you feel like is the very best. Andrew and I did everything very methodically, very carefully. Everything was with a lot of conversations, with a lot of doctors and nurses, and gathering a lot of opinions. Everything was done very much so… and together.

I think especially toward the end, I felt a lot of criticism because a lot of times it was like, “This is what Sam wanted.” But it was always what Andrew and I would discuss, and we were married, so obviously, it was what we both wanted. So yeah, there were definitely times when I thought, “I don’t understand how people could be adding stress onto an already stressful situation.” There were times when we were like, “Why are we even entertaining these questions or having to read these things?”

But obviously, overall, everybody was very supportive just in giving grace and intentions. So even if they were coming across a little bit harsh in what their opinion was, I was like, “You know what, I’m going to give grace, because they want him to get better too, and this is just the way in which they feel like that would be best suited.” I think I learned a lot of grace and a lot of patience in that season of life.

Joe: The surrounding crowd can be challenging for sure.

Samantha Smith: Andrew comes from a very large family, and my family cares very deeply, especially concerning Andrew and everything. There were definitely lines that had to be set and boundaries that needed to be put up. I think it was especially hard for us, because we were married in May, and then we moved overseas a couple months later, so there was never any transition time for anybody to see Andrew as a husband and a part of our own family, a relative. To everybody else, he was their son, and brother, and grandson, on both sides of the family, on his and mine. And we came back, and he was sick. So it was hard for everybody to adjust to that.

We bought our house in February of 2015, again, thinking we’re going to start our lives and everything. And then it was May 2015 when he got re-diagnosed, and at that point, we knew that he had gone through so much treatment that was unsuccessful up to that point, that a bone marrow transplant was really the only option left. I remember being told very early on in treatment that if you are at the point of a bone marrow transplant, and you’re not in good shape, then that’s really your only option. I remember having that conversation and them saying, “We’re going to try and keep away from that. We don’t want to get to that point.” So, obviously, we knew it was going to  be a struggle once we were at that point.

May of 2015 is when he got re-diagnosed. November is when he was able to have his bone marrow transplant– just trying to get his spot ready, trying to find a donor, all those things. And then, it was very quickly after that, that his body didn’t take, and his cancer transformed from lymphoma to leukemia. And then, it was just a couple weeks after that that he passed. He passed in January of 2016, so we’re approaching two years now, which is kind of crazy.

Joe: As you look back on all that, why was—and why is—sharing your story publicly so important?

Samantha Smith: Yeah. I think that answer has dual parts. I think, first and foremost, just that we were kind of thrust into this platform, and that platform has shifted and changed. It went from a public platform of just Andrew as a basketball player, and my role being the support in that. And then to being a caregiver for Andrew, as a patient, and through that sickness. And now, the platform has shifted into, “Okay, now what is Sam, what is Samantha Smith?” And I think that was the hardest shift: now that  platform wasn’t shared, feeling like your reasoning for having a platform at all now isn’t present. So kind of a, “Then what?”

But I think that also came back to even the same reasoning for why we kept sharing even when it got hard, just that we had honestly craved to be used, all of our lives, through our dating, through our marriage, and of course, we never expected it to look like it did. I’m not saying that the Lord gave Andrew cancer. I don’t at all believe that. But just that we had always asked to be used. We had always asked to be a positive influence–to be people that walked with grace and helped people live their best lives, and so I guess just that feeling of, even though my circumstances have changed, my purpose hasn’t. So, certainly wanting to carry on that conversation, regardless of the fact that the circumstances have dramatically changed.

Joe: Wow. Well, thanks so much for sharing all that.

On the plot twist toward public speaking...

Joe: Today, is public speaking your sole role? Are you doing other projects beside that?

Samantha Smith: Public speaking and trying to move more into the space of consulting, which I guess is just public speaking on a smaller scale. But again, just kind of speaking into the lives of other people, just where my heart’s at. That’s mostly through public speaking, but also through consulting and writing. I do a lot of writing, trying to, again,  find that sweet spot, which is difficult. Especially after Andrew passed, and as I worked through grief, there’s been a lot of “Now what?” sort of things.

I met Andrew when I was… gosh, 14. I was a baby; I was a kid. Every life plan had kind of revolved around Andrew or had Andrew in it. You know the plan was to go overseas and play basketball for five years, have four kids, stay home with them and raise them and love on them. That was the plan. So when every possibility regarding what you thought your future was, is no longer an option, it really does land you in this, “Oh crap, now what?” panic mode, almost. I’m certainly still wrestling through that “Now what?”

Even as this business has been birthed, and has kind of taken off, there are still time periods where I ask, “Is this fine?” because it’s just not anything you ever really thought you’d be doing. And then it’s about not getting discouraged when it’s a little bit slower, and thinking, “Well maybe I’m not supposed to do this.” I think it’s easy just to feed into that lie of thinking, “Maybe this wasn’t right.” So I wrestle through that. I was like, “What am I doing? What am I doing?”

Joe: For sure. That’s so hard. And what was your degree in at college?

Samantha Smith: I never even finished. I started in journalism and realized very quickly that that was not the realm of writing that I enjoyed. It just wasn’t for me. So, I eventually moved into psychology and just tried to chip away at that. But again, the idea wasn’t even ever to utilize that degree because I was hoping to stay home with the kiddos.  It was more so to be able to expand the way in which I could volunteer and help. That was kind of the end goal with that. Then the idea was, when we were overseas, that I was gonna kind of chip away at that and finish that online. That was going to be my project while I was overseas. But then obviously, when Andrew got sick, that certainly went on the back burner.

Joe: That’s interesting. So where in the process did you start visiting the idea of public speaking? That’s a scary thing for most people, so how did that come around?

Samantha Smith: Public speaking was always a space that I was very comfortable in. It has never really made me nervous. Also, Andrew and I had done public speaking together, quite often—first  and foremost as a basketball player, and then as he got sick, we would kind of share our journey and everything. So it was always a very comfortable space for me.

But I do remember the exact kind of moment, almost an “ah ha” moment, if you will. I was actually doing a speaking event at Butler University, and I was co-speaking with another speaker. I remember being up there, and it was all about empowering young girls and combating comparison, and just the struggles that we, as women—as humans—all face.

But I remember being up there, and feeling like, A) this is the first time I’d felt joy since Andrew had passed, and B) that I could do this forever. I could honestly do this forever. I felt almost alive, like I was being fed in that moment. And that’s kind of the first time that I was like, “You know, I think that I want to explore this a little bit more; I want to see if there is a space here for me to dive into this.”  That was the moment that I was like, “I could do this forever.” And it’s been one of those, “Well, we’re  going to try to do this forever, then.”

On the trials after the trial...

Joe: So where are you today? People come and go pretty quickly in trials. How would you describe your current state in terms of support from the outside community?

Samantha Smith: I think that it was certainly always overwhelmingly beautiful as we walked Andrew through sickness. Even though we had a lot of opinions being thrown at us, the amount of support and love that we always felt was just overwhelming in the best of ways. It was stunningly beautiful to see how many people cared, and to what depths they would go to express that care and support. And then certainly, after Andrew passed, continuing to feel that, as a community.

I do think it’s something that I’ve learned:  just the struggle of walking by someone, or with someone, who’s walking through grief. The one walking through grief, always gets the question, “What do you need?” And the answer being, “I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know what I need.” And then just seeing it done right and wrong through support of family and friends. But again, going back to that grace of giving … just the fact that they don’t know, and that’s okay. Also, always keeping in mind that they lost someone, too. And so they’re grieving too. I’ve seen it done in some really good ways, and I’ve seen it done like, “Oh, I don’t think that was right.” But, also being mindful of, ”Maybe that wasn’t for me, but it could be right for someone else.” Again, grief is just so crazy; it makes people react all over the place.

There’s definitely been a steady handful of people that have been patient and graceful with me through my grieving process. I have just felt their support, especially as I’ve walked into this next stage with my business and everything. And then there’s definitely, like you said, people who have fallen by the wayside, and kind of faded, and you have to learn to be okay with that. I think one of the main things that I’ve learned– actually I just did a big writing piece on this– is just how much of life is in seasons, whether that’s life itself or relationships. That’s been a freeing lesson for me to learn, and it’s been a hard one too, though, kind of feeling the finality of some seasons, of some relationships. But, again, having the knowledge that it’s okay that that person isn’t necessarily a permanent fixture, or that I’m not in that season of life anymore.

Joe: Talk a little bit about maybe the role faith played in your journey. Where did that come from and how did it weave in or weave out?

Samantha Smith: So Andrew and I both had a very solid foundation of faith, but it had come about in very different ways. With Andrew coming from such a solid upbringing, his family is very much faith-based. And that was a really solid relationship that was constant for him.

I came from a dysfunctional family, but I had grandparents that would pick us up every Sunday and take us to church. So there was kind of that foundation laid, but it had been tested, you know, quite often. I remember, as we walked through Andrew’s sickness,  even in the beginning stages, even before he got sick, Andrew always kind of expressing that he never felt like his faith had been tested; that he never felt that it had really been pushed, and that he’d always kind of prayed and hoped that it was as solid as he felt like it was. It just had never really been tested. So, I’ll go back now and read through some of his journals and his writings, his devotionals and things, just kind of talking about being pushed and tested… and I love that he did find that it was as true and as solid as he had hoped that it was.

But I remember when he first got sick, almost feeling the sense of responsibility of showing and teaching Andrew how to walk through hardship with a faith-based lens. And we definitely, I think, certainly took turns in that. And I do think initially, yeah, there was a lot of reliance on me, asking, “How do I walk through this, with faith, and how do I not handle this in anger?” And there were seasons where we did, and that’s totally fine.

But then again, there were times when I was like, “I’m wavering here, and I need to borrow some of your faith.” So we kind of did that throughout his sickness… just leaning into each other and leaning into each other’s faith, because, again, I think there were very few times that we both felt really solid, you know?

Joe: Together?

Samantha Smith: Together. Always as a married couple, yes. I would say there were times when, you know, my faith was wavering and I’d say, ” Where is Lord in all of this?” And him being like, “Okay, this is what we know to be truth.” And then there would be times where he’d be like, “I’m angry,” and I’d be like, “And that’s okay. But this is what we know to be true.” So kind of reminding each other, again, of that truth that we both know. I think as we walked in sickness, our relationship grew– with each other and with the Lord.

Since Andrew passed, yeah, there’s definitely been that back and forth. Until honestly, for the first year almost, there was never a time I wrestled with anger. I’m not naturally an angry person. So the first year my family was like, “Are you angry?” and I’m just like, “Honestly, no. I’m incredibly sad; obviously, I’m very emotional; I’m very grief-ridden.” But angry was never an adjective I used to describe that.

But I would say in the last year, a lot of anger has fired up. A lot of the same thing we were talking about: a lot of the “why?” Even though you can see that you’re never going to understand why, but still that feeling of injustice certainly eats away at me sometimes, knowing, not only was he extremely healthy, and young, and wonderful, but I think the part that I struggle with most, is that this was honestly the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and everything you read about Andrew, everything you hear people talk about, all these good things don’t even do him justice. He was so humble and just good to the core. And so you think about… not that anybody deserves this battle with cancer… but when you think about someone that added so much life to this world, why was he taken so young?

So I think the injustice of the whole situation certainly eats away at me, and at times, my faith. I certainly go through, again, the seasons of, “Okay I trust in this; this is fine,” and then the next week being in the season of, “I don’t trust you with anything because I gave you everything, and in my eyes you let me down.” So certainly I still wrestle with that. I think that will continue to be an ongoing battle.

In my mid 20s, that’s a really overwhelming feeling. “Am I always going to be wrestling with this? Am I always going to be wrestling with anger and with confusion?” I would love to get back to the point where I do trust the Lord totally, because I’m not there. And then that feeling of, “Do you trust the Lord after something like this?” That sort of thing, that kind of wrestling… of how does one even recover spiritually from something like this?

Joe: I love the unsettledness of that.

Samantha Smith: Exactly. And that was always really important with Andrew and I, and for myself now, is just that we were always totally honest and genuine in every season of everything. We never tried to sugar coat anything. When it sucked, we said it sucked, and when it was hard, we said it was hard. We felt the good times, and we’d share this too. But I think that’s also why people now find it a little bit easier to relate to me, because I’ve never been one to sit there and be like, “It’s fine.” It’s not fine. These things aren’t fine. And I’m not afraid to sit there and tell you that it’s not fine, you know?

Joe: And that’s real life…things in constant tension.

Samantha Smith: It’s exhausting.

Joe: Definitely. What are some “best practices,” if you will, of how to come alongside someone who’s hurting? What are some things that worked or didn’t work from your perspective as a recipient?

Samantha Smith: I think first and foremost, understanding that everyone is different. My truth might be really different from somebody else’s truth. But I would say, overall, just the action of doing versus asking was pretty key for us. When you ask and when you put it in their hands, saying,”What can I do for you?” or “Let me know what I can do for you,” there’s almost that responsibility put on their plate when A) they don’t need more on their plate or B) there’s going to be, even though you’ve offered, a sense of guilt for asking when there might be a need. And then, yeah, adding onto that plate of, like, “Okay, I need to assess. What do I need and what could someone take off my plate?” Instead, just see a need, go and do.

I think one of the best things people did for us was Googling restaurants or stores around the hospital, because we’d be there for extensive times, and then, they would just give us gift cards for those specific places. Or, you know, my bosses came over and just cleaned our house from top to bottom one day without us asking. Just going and seeing a need and doing it was honestly the biggest support that we ever felt, and that I felt individually. It’s people that just go and do.

Even when I think about relationships that have kind of faded, I think a lot of that… and I’m not putting blame on anybody… has been both parties thinking that the other one would start the conversation or make the ask and then neither one does. So yeah, I know that just doing without asking has been the best support that I’ve walked away with and have felt.

Joe: For sure.

Samantha Smith: And also, the good people are the ones that just sit with you and have no expectations. I think about people that would come in the hospital. Sometimes they would just be in the waiting room; they’d never even make it to the room, because either Andrew was feeling sick, or exhausted, but the presence was enough… just having those people and not feeling the pressure of having to entertain them, or continue the conversation. Those were the best people. The ones that were like, “I’m just going to sit here. It’s fine.”

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