Lucy Kalanithi, MD, has noticed that her young daughter, Cady, doesn't think of the cemetery as scary or sad. It's a beautiful place, where Cady looks forward to seeing a deer, picking up a snail or planting flowers near her father's grave. She knows her dad is buried there, under the ground, but she doesn't think of that as sad either. It just is.
In the first episode of the new "Meditative Story" podcast, Kalanithi shares an audio essay about the wisdom and delight to be found, even in the midst of tragic loss, by seeing life and death through the eyes of a child.
Kalanithi is a clinical assistant professor at Stanford. She helped complete the bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which her late husband Paul Kalanithi, MD, a Stanford neurosurgeon, wrote before he died of lung cancer at age 37. Cady, who has just started kindergarten, was 8 months old when he died. Kalanithi explains in the audio story:
There are things that children grow up into. Things like feeling part of a family, belonging to a religion, thinking that reading books is important, loving animals. Cady will grow up into the idea of visiting a grave.
Visiting the cemetery, in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is something they've done since Cady was a baby. They drive over every week or two, alone or with friends, and lie in the grass, have a picnic or watch the sunset. Kalanithi shares:
I remember bringing Cady here on Paul's birthday when she was 3. She asked if she could put stickers on Paul's gravestone. I hesitated briefly, but I let her. It made her happy to stick sparkly hearts on the gravestone. And it made me happy.
Kalanithi, who wrote the epilogue to Paul's book, has done a lot of public speaking since then, in healthcare and public venues including TEDMED and the Aspen Ideas Festival. She loves listening to podcasts -- a few of her favorites are "Terrible, Thanks for Asking," "Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness" and "The Slowdown" -- and she actually has a series of her own in development around the topic of hardship.
"Meditative Story," produced by WaitWhat in partnership with Arianna Huffington's Thrive Global, takes an unusual format: first-person stories mixed with guided meditations and prompts from a mindfulness guide that are intended to help listeners connect more deeply to both the story and their own feelings. Each episode is scored with original music.
Kalanithi was intrigued when she was initially contacted by WaitWhat producers Deron Triff and June Cohen, former TED executives with an interest in meditation. Cohen happens to be an alumna of Stanford, where she served as editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. The couple's company produces LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman's "Masters of Scale" podcast and others.
"June and I have felt there's a real intersection between storytelling and the qualities of mindfulness," Triff said. "I attended so many TED conferences, and I remember for some of the great speakers, just being lost in that moment and setting everything else aside and coming out of those talks feeling renewed."
The producers hope the format makes mindfulness -- the state of being present in the moment -- more accessible to the average listener.
"There are lots of people that feel that meditation and mindfulness isn't for them, when in fact we know just the power of a breath, in terms of de-stressing and re-centering one's self," said Dan Katz, Thrive's head of business development and one of the show's four executive producers. "When you go in through this lens of storytelling... then it's something that's approachable."
The producers told Kalanithi she could talk about anything that mattered to her. In a public career that includes sharing her evolving experience as a physician, parent and widow, she finds that that whenever she shares Cady's reflections, whether at speaking events or on Twitter, they resonate.
"People are interested in Cady because they read Paul's book and they want to know how Cady's doing, and the things a kid says are just so poignant," Kalanithi told me.
She said she learned the benefits of meditation during a bout of depression in medical school and "it honestly changed my life."
"The fact that it's A, a storytelling thing, and B, a meditation thing, I just thought, how could I say no to this?" she said. "It sounded like a really beautiful format."
Photo courtesy Lucy Kalanithi