Leona’s Story: When life is not fair


Life is not fair. My dad must have told me that at least a thousand times growing up. I hated those four words. But I’ve found myself repeating that phrase to my kids. And I’ve witnessed it lived out all around me, as bad things happen to good people. Indeed, life is not fair.

Today would’ve been my friend Leona’s 48th birthday. In June, she passed away after a two-year battle with stage IV lung cancer — having never smoked a day in her life. She fought the hard fight, but about a month before she died, she was told her cancer had spread, treatments weren’t working, and there wasn’t anything more they could do. She accepted this news with dignity and grace, and on June 3, 2015, she took her last breath. She was 47. No, life is not fair, but it’s certainly a gift. We get to unwrap it each day, and see how it unfolds. Each day is a privilege, a chance to tell our story. And Leona’s story gifted me with a greater perspective on life, friendship and faith.

When you’re told it’s the end, what would you do? What would you worry about less, and focus more time on? The thought that you needed a bigger house, a fancy car, that cute outfit you saw at the mall, or a better job would totally disappear, wouldn’t it? You may wish you could travel the world or have just one more opportunity to see those you loved.

Park City

Leona and I met in the fall of 2011. As consultants for Uppercase Living, we were invited to a weekend retreat in Park City, Utah, representing the top sellers in the company. Both of us were from Minnesota, and while I had heard her name throughout the year, we had never met. One night, we were sitting around this huge dining table in our penthouse condo {yes penthouse!} conversing between the eight of us. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I do remember Leona turning to me and saying, “So, you’re one of those religious types, huh?” I remember replying, “Yep, I love Jesus!” We ended up next to each other on the flight home — and we talked the entire time. Being from northern Minnesota (practically Canada), she didn’t know the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport very well, so she asked me to help her find her connecting gate, and that was the start of our friendship.

Looking back, I know without a doubt that God wanted me to remember that specific part of our conversation in Park City, because after she was diagnosed with cancer, this became an important part of our friendship. I shared my faith with Leona, and she knew that every day, I was praying for her.

Leona and Julee airport

Leona and I waiting to board our flight to Puerto Rico for our cruise (March 2012).

Julee Leona Linda ziplining

Leona, Linda and I getting ready to zipline in St. Lucia (March 2012).

Leona Felicia and me

Leona, Felicia and I having fun at UL’s Leadership Dinner (July 2014).


I saw Leona fight, and fight hard. This is a girl who never gave up. Through intensive treatment for two years, she had good days and many, many bad days. When each round of difficult news came, she remained determined. I witnessed her family and friends surround her with love — and it was beautiful. She, too, remained thoughtful, caring, and generous to her core. Leona was a big-time gift giver. For example, while shopping at a boutique store in Salt Lake City, she told all of us shopping with her that she wanted to buy us all a pair of sparkly designer jeans. I ended up getting two pairs, and she wouldn’t let me pay her for either one! Leona also was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. She would drive four hours one way, just to do an in-home party. She lived in a town of about 8,000, but she was the top seller in our entire company. She was driven to succeed and never gave up. I also always joked that she could recruit new team members with one text. She was my constant cheerleader, encouraging me on good days and bad.

One of my favorite moments was standing on stage with her at our annual convention in July 2013, just a few short months after her cancer diagnosis. We were named to the top five in sales for the company. She was #1, I was #5. Without her cheering me on until the very end, I wouldn’t have been standing with her in that elite group.

Convention 2013

My friend Faith, Jeff (UL’s president), Leona and I celebrating three Minnesotans in top sales at UL’s national convention (July 2013).


But perspective tells me at the end of Leona’s life, it didn’t matter that she was #1 in sales, that she was the second highest sales in the history of the company, or that she earned a host of incentive trips. {Don’t get me wrong, those are all great things.} What matters most is how she loved others, who was at her side, who showed up when it got hard, and that she knew she was loved — by God and by others. On the day Leona died, my Facebook feed was lit up with photos and tributes to Leona’s life. That girl was dearly loved.

The last time I saw Leona, she was in a hospital in Fargo. She was so weak with no appetite. We’d take a walk down the hallway and she’d be winded halfway back. This was not the strong woman I knew. But her heart, determination and courage were the same. In our final one-on-one conversation, she told me that while she didn’t know what she had done to deserve cancer, she was at peace about dying. Her dad had died 12 years ago, and she was excited to see him again. We talked about God and why he allows such things as cancer. I assured her she hadn’t done anything to deserve cancer, that it was a result of living in a fallen/imperfect/human world. We then talked about what heaven might be like. I reminisced about all of the beautiful places we’d been to on our trips — from the beaches of Barbados to ziplining through the rainforest of St. Lucia. I said I believe that if God gave us those beautiful places on this earth, which is temporary, I can’t imagine what he has in store for us for eternity. Her response was one I’ll never forget. She said, “I wish when I got to heaven, I could send you a message letting you know all about it.” That was just like her, thinking about others even in her own final days.

1 Corinthians 2:9 

However, as it is written:

“No eye has seen,
    no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
   what God has prepared for those who love him”—

In our final moments together, I held her hand and prayed for her. And thankfully, God gave me the words to say, without being an emotional mess. {He saved that for my long drive home.}

Leona didn’t deserve cancer. I wish it wasn’t the ending to her story. My heart aches when I think of her. I long for my phone to chime with one of her spontaneous texts. I wish she had received the miracle of healing we had prayed for, and yet, I’m reminded she did. She is eternally cancer free, no longer suffering, and I picture her soaking in the sun just as she loved.

Leona in Dominican

Dominican Republic (June 2013).


Because we live in a broken world, death is part of the human experience. It is not God’s will that bad things happen to us, but He is there to walk with us through them. Through Leona’s life and her death, my willingness and need to share my faith has been deepened. More than ever, I am desperate to know that my family and friends know Jesus and share this eternal hope with me. If you don’t believe in Jesus or heaven, if you have doubts, if you think being a good person is all you need to do to reach heaven, or if you think God could never love you because of the things you’ve done, then we need to talk. I don’t have all the answers nor will I ever. Indeed, I seek every day to learn more. But I cannot stand for one minute thinking that this life is all there is — especially with the chaos happening in the world around us. No, heaven is not just some imaginary place, but a place we can truly look forward to. This life is temporary. We have no guarantee for another day. But with Jesus, life is eternal. There is no end. And I have no doubt I will see my friend again some day.

Life is not fair. But it is a gift. Happy birthday in heaven, Leona. I miss you!

Julee sig 2014_pink_xoxo-1_edited-1

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)








6 Comments on Leona’s Story: When life is not fair

  1. Sheila Gebhardt
    November 17, 2015 at 4:36 pm (2 years ago)

    Held onto every word and cherish this post.

    Miss Leona so much.

    Hugs my friend.

    • Julee
      November 17, 2015 at 4:38 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks for the kind words, Sheila. You have no idea how I fretted putting this one out there. I hope she would be proud of the way we’ve honored her.

  2. Kay Christopherson
    November 17, 2015 at 2:56 pm (2 years ago)

    What a beautiful tribute and reminder about the importance of having an eternal perspective, Julee! So well written…thank you!! ❤️

    • Julee
      November 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks for reading, Kay! So glad God put you in my friend path, as well!

  3. Megan
    November 17, 2015 at 1:30 pm (2 years ago)

    Oh Julee!!!! You write so beautifully. I can feel her hugging all of us as I read this. I miss her too and LOVE thinking of all the memories we’ve created along the way. I believe God put us all on a path so that we could be uplifted, inspired and loved by each other. Every thought of my UL gifts makes me smile!!!! I love you friend and thank you for writing this. #lovingourleona

    • Julee
      November 17, 2015 at 1:41 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks for your sweet words, Megan. You have no idea how much I appreciate them! I treasure our UL memories and adore my friends that came about because of that path. I love you, Crazy Megan!


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