Student to give TEDxUNB talk on “The Art of Losing”

(Jerry-Faye Flatt/AQ)

“One Art,” a poem written by Elizabeth Bishop, is about how everyone experiences loss in their daily lives. No matter how you experience it, it’s not hard to master the art of losing.

Emily McMillan, a second-year nursing student at the University of New Brunswick, will be using Bishop’s poem as a reference to her childhood when delivering her talk called “The Art of Losing” at this year’s TEDxUNB conference.

For as long as McMillan can remember, her mother has been chronically ill. In the early 2000s, she was diagnosed with Behcet’s disease, a form of vasculitis.

“It’s a rare autoimmune disease that affects your body in a way that your immune system attacks yourself rather than attacking a foreign body,” McMillan said.

Her mom was a registered nurse, which is where McMillan got her passion for nursing. But she also enjoys the arts, which is why she’s using Bishop’s poem to speak about her mother’s illness.

McMillan took an advanced placement English class in high school. Around that time, she got into spoken-word and studied poetry. She often visited a website called Poetry in Voice where people can post videos of themselves reading poems. That’s where she found “One Art.”

McMillan uses the theme of this poem to talk about loss in a different way.

“I basically relate the whole thing to my mom and the loss that she has experienced throughout her life, and through her, the loss I experienced as a child,” she said.

McMillan considers herself an expert on the art of losing and her talk is meant give people a how-to guide of mastering loss. She said this is important because loss is something humans deal with every day.

Her mother, Heather McMillan, had to give up her nursing career because of her illness. Nursing made her feel like she had worth and helping people brought her joy.

“Despite my mom going from nurse to patient, from caregiver to care-receiver, you could not shake the nurse out of my mother,” she said.

“She still helped people when she was in a hospital bed at 90 pounds. She had a roommate once that had a stroke and my mom would use communication techniques with her.”

McMillan gets chills just thinking about having something you’re so passionate about be taken away from you. But loss is real and it’s something both she and her mother have had to deal with.

However, McMillan tries to not let it affect her day-to-day life. When she was younger, she still went to school and did things any normal kid would do, and she never saw herself as a victim.

“It’s not that my life was overly different,” she said. “It’s just that my life was my life.”

Illness was normal for McMillan. It was an everyday occurrence. She remembers playing with dolls in her closet and then walking into the bathroom and seeing her dad give her mom a needle.

“I remember my mom apologizing to me once when I was in high school, saying, ‘I’m sorry you lost your innocence at such a young age.’ But I never thought about it that way,” she said.

“I mean, in a way I did [because] I had to see things that other people didn’t at my age, but I never looked at that as a downfall.”

In her talk, McMillan uses a metaphor about how most people relate loss to things such as natural disasters.

“I relate my mom’s body as her own natural disaster and how the disease took away from her what a tornado would take away from a house,” she said.

Heather McMillan’s illness is invisible so at first sight you may not know she’s sick.

McMillan remembers a doctor coming in to see her mom for the first time. He walked into the room and said he was expecting it to be a lot worse. But this doctor didn’t know her mom had lost weight and looked much different than she did before.

“It kind of teaches me, as a nurse, to be nonjudgmental,” McMillan said.

Despite the difficulties McMillan has gone through, she doesn’t let the bad stuff get the best of her.

“If you stay in the mourning process then you’re never going to be able to move on with your life.”

In 2006, McMillan was told her mom was never going to walk again and she was going to die.

Today, her mom is both alive and walking. She will also be attending her daughter’s talk.

McMillan is both excited and terrified to speak at this year’s TEDxUNB conference which is happening April 8.

Applications to attend the conference are now closed, but late applications are still being considered. The event will be filmed and live-streamed on Facebook. 

McMillan wants her talk to change the world’s perspective on loss.

“I just want people to realize that loss does happen in everybody’s life. It’s how you choose to deal with loss that affects how you’ll continue to live your life. Meaning if you’re angry and spiteful, it will reflect that way in your life,” she said.

“You have to reflect on loss but you also can’t let it hold you down to the point that you aren’t motivated to continue on in your everyday activities.”