The headlines read, “Claire Wineland, inspirational speaker and social media star, dies at 21” on Sept. 3. Wineland was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a very young age and keenly aware of her own mortality. The disease is a genetic condition that causes thick mucus to build up in the lungs, causing persistent infections and preventing them from working.
Many discovered Wineland through a viral Facebook video shared in March 2016, where she told the world of her terminality candidly. Her post spoke to the hearts and minds of the public, she often joked about her short life, saying she wouldn’t know what to do with a longer one.
She raised the question: What if we stopped living in service of death and instead lived in service of life?
Wineland was many things: a break in the stereotype of what “sick” looks like, an embodiment of embracing life to the fullest, and a vessel of gutsy vibrance and occasional self-deprecation. She was a reminder that death is unavoidable and inevitable –– but that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Death isn’t an easy topic to broach. For the interest we all show in death, we are afraid to talk about it openly –– maybe only when alone in our rooms at night. Silence from public figures on death is the norm. Wineland, in life and death, opened the gate for these conversations.
Her online presence emphasized the prevalence of death and dying, but, more importantly, of all of the life in between. She showed all the laughs as well as the pain. Her death at 21 is more relevant to us now than ever because she was young and energetic, and, despite the oxygen tube draped across her nose, the extended hospital stays and the constant pain of living with a terminal illness, she was just like us. When she turned 21, she knew she was approaching the end of her life, but as college students of around the same age, many of us see our lives as just beginning. We are joining Greek life, deciding which classes to take and planning what to do after college. There seems to be no end to the possibilities, but there is an end; Wineland just happened to have a better idea of her expiration date.
Wineland’s story reminds us of the inevitability of death. It’s a possibility at any time. It also isn’t always flashy and horrifying. It can be quiet and gradual. The only thing anyone knows about death is that we don’t know anything about it. Maybe it shouldn’t be something to fear or live in service of, but something to talk about openly, so we can, together, come to an understanding of it.