Grief. Just the sound of the word makes us uncomfortable. Grieving is a healthy and very “normal” process to go through after you or someone you love has been given a cancer diagnosis. Living with cancer and loving someone through cancer is tied to an accumulation of losses that can include death but are certainly not limited to the physical loss of life. Cancer brings a tidal wave of collateral damage into our lives and the ripples continue to be felt beyond the initial diagnosis and treatment and can affect the patient as well as the entire family.
We grieve the loss of life as we once knew it.
Entering the grief cycle takes us one step closer to healing our minds, bodies and spirits. There is no predetermined time frame for an individual to move through the entire grieving process. Everyone will experience the stages differently. Grief is very individualistic; as unique as one’s DNA. Each person will move through the stages at their own pace and in their own order. There might be movement back and forth between stages or they can overlap and occur simultaneously. It is important to familiarize yourself with the grief cycle. Watch for signs in your life or that of a loved one to offer them the support they need during that stage of grief.
Stages of Grief
“Is this really happening?” Feelings of complete shock and disbelief. I remember feeling like a spectator in my own life when my mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma brain cancer. It was almost as if I was watching someone else’s reality play out on the big screen. If you have ever seen the movie Groundhog Day, that was what my reality felt like. I relived the nightmare of her diagnosis constantly. I remember waking up each morning, praying to the Lord that the day ahead was going to be different than the day before.
Denial helps when life is too overwhelming to process all at once. According to the Mayo Clinic, a short period of denial can be healthy, however, movement beyond this stage is necessary. If we find ourselves stuck in denial, we will not be able to face issues that require our attention or necessitate action.
In this stage you are trying to make sense of your circumstances. The anger phase is riddled with high, intense emotions. When you grieve a diagnosis, you are entitled to your feelings and time to process through them. A cancer diagnosis is A LOT to take in all at once. This stage is tricky and one to keep a watchful eye. It can easily get out of hand.
Blame occurs frequently during the anger stage. We look for anyone or anything to blame cancer on; ourselves, the doctors, family members, even and especially God. We are so desperately trying to put the pieces of our life back together in a way that we can understand and in the process, we point fingers and shake fists at the entire universe. This stage requires healthy outlets to channel the feelings of anger, rage and blame in order to properly process through the emotions and keep them in their appropriate place.
“God, I promise to (fill in the blank) if you take this cancer away.” This stage is full of promises, unrealistic exchanges and a litany of “if onlys.” Guilt can also creep in and invade our hearts and minds. I am no stranger to being held captive by guilt. When my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, the surgeon speculated that my mom’s tumor had probably been growing for about 6 months prior to diagnosis. Well, here is where guilt sucker punched me straight in the gut. Talk about crushing guilt and uncanny timing! Six months prior to my mom’s brain cancer diagnosis, my husband and I decided to move 900 miles away. The Enemy had a hay day with that one! He used that to wreak absolute havoc in my spirit.
Confronting cancer and the copious amounts of “loss” it brings with it is difficult and soul wrenching. Crying (especially the full-body, ugly cry), lack of sleep, loss of concentration, headaches, fatigue and overall body aches are all “normal” experiences during this stage of grief.
During the first few weeks after my mom’s diagnosis, I lived in self-preservation mode. I remember life feeling very robotic, void of authentic emotion or expression. I went through the motions and made sure the list of to-dos was complete and up to date. It wasn’t until my mom began treatment that the emotional heaviness of the diagnosis finally broke me. I had been carrying it around like a backpack full of boulders. Until one day, I crumbled from the weight of it all. Talk about ugly crying! There was no waterproof mascara that could have withstood the purging of those emotions that I carried bottled up inside me for weeks!
Having a reliable support system is a essential must on this cancer journey. There is a difference between healthy grieving and clinical depression. When activities of daily living are being interrupted and you or a loved one is having trouble functioning through a normal day, it is time for a professional intervention. There is absolutely no shame in seeking professional counseling and support. It is strongly encouraged even before emotions get out of our control.
Moving to acceptance does not mean that you are happy or ok all of the time or that you are no longer grieving the diagnosis/illness. Acceptance simply means that you have come to a peace within yourself that this is a part of your life and you are actively finding new ways to cope with your circumstances so you can continue to move forward. This stage helps individuals develop new “normals” for themselves and their families. It is a time of self- exploration to search for a new sense of purpose through this stage of life.
Is accepting easy? Absolutely NOT! But with time, intentionality, and a whole ‘lotta Jesus, it can happen.
When Grief Creeps In
- Communicate effectively. No one can read your mind, (even though we think they can or at the very least, they should be able to!)
- Allow yourself and your loved ones to own their feelings and to express raw emotions as they arise. Stuffing down emotions and never inviting them into the light to be acknowledged, will prevent you from processing and working through them. Give yourself and your loved ones’ permission to not be o.k. Just remember, the Lord loves you too much to leave you in that place.
- Extend yourself and those you love GRACE. Grieving is a perfectly imperfect process.
- Expect the unexpected. Embrace the notion that emotions will ebb and flow moment to moment.
- Find your people. You might feel like you are on a Merry Go Round ride from hell, desperate to find the exit. Grieving is both an individual and collective process. Know who has your back and hang on to one another for the ride.
- Ask for help. Never be ashamed to seek professional help or community support to make transitioning between stages more digestible. Seek assistance sooner rather than later. You will not regret it.
- When you are grieving the losses, don’t forget to remember those precious things that cancer will never be able to steal away from you. What can you cling to today?
A cancer diagnosis is similar to a rollercoaster ride; full of ups, downs, unexpected twists and nauseating turns. Grieving the losses is important and healthy. It is imperative to remember there is no “one size fits all” approach. The process will look differently depending on a person’s personality, experiences, relationships, and religious beliefs. Learn to recognize the stages of grief and embrace them.
Please remember, grief is not something you “just get over.”
“Grief is not a state but a process-like walking in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend.” (C.S. Lewis)