It was a tough week. Within the space of a few days two people who had become particularly special to me in the last few years died. They both died as a result of cancer.
I’m no stranger to adversity, grief and loss. My own and that of others. And although I’m familiar with models and theories such as Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Neimeyer’s work on meaning making, Stroebe and Schut’s dual process model of coping with bereavement and others which can help us understand the experiences around grief, I also know that in reality grief is complex; it affects us all differently, and is not the same as each of us is unique and each person we have loved and lost and grieved over is as unique as our relationships with them.
When people we care about die our lives are never quite the same again. Even years later we may find ourselves remembering those loved ones and feeling the heartache and loss as if they had just died.
When I have a concern, when something is wrong with me, when I’m upset, I reach out. I can’t do life by myself. I am weak but I believe my acknowledgment of that also makes me strong. As I tweeted last week ‘Strength and weakness are not opposites, but rather they go together. Being strong involves acknowledging you’re weak. To understand your strengths you need to understand your weaknesses…’.
When I’m in that raw state of heartache, heartbreak and shock that I feel when a loved one dies it is difficult to find the words to describe my feelings and when all I need is care in the form of a hug I don’t really need the words. As time goes on I find it helpful and therapeutic to think about my feelings, to put them into words.
Most of my life I have worked with people. When I worked with children and young people I used to help them learn the language of emotions through play, to help them express their beliefs, feelings and thoughts about their experiences and their relationships. I think we can have a tendency to push aside feelings we consider negative to cope and get on with life do but I believe it is good to allow ourselves a pause, some space and time to be with our feelings, to grieve. Many, as I have during the last week or so, find informal support for this from family and friends and others in their communities. Sometimes though, I find it is better and easier to talk to people who are not emotionally involved, who are professionally trained counsellors and therapists who have experience, knowledge and understanding and whose work is governed by an ethical code of practise and values to provide formal boundaried and safe support.
I am going to share some of the emotions I’ve noticed and experienced in myself during the last nine days. Perhaps you recognise some of them.
Anger – Anger about cancer, the way it cancels and curtails life, it’s destructiveness.
As a child I suppressed my feelings of anger to the extent that if you had asked me what made me angry, I would have struggled to answer. Good girls don’t get angry, right? Wrong! As a teenager, I probably would have mentioned having a sense of anger about injustices and the wrongs I saw in the wider world but for myself on personal level I had suppressed my anger to the extent that I didn’t recognise my anger at all. So I’m pleased I’ve connected with that emotion this week.
Anxiety – Is this migraine just a migraine? Is this back pain just back pain? Is this fatigue just fatigue? Is this upset stomach just an upset stomach? Is that spot just a spot? Is my weight loss just normal weight loss. Rationally I think the answer to all these questions is probably yes but, and this is where fear comes in, I wonder could it be metastatic cancer? How do I know if and when my symptoms are something I need to worry about? If I do mention them to one of my doctors and nurses will they judge me and label me as a worry wart? Again, rationally, I know I need to mention them and share responsibility for the decision making with the experts.
Confusion – I have far more questions than answers. Many of my ‘why’s’ don’t have any answers and I’m okay with that really.
Disappointment – A sense that this isn’t the way life should be.
Loss – I have lost my auntie, she will not be part of my life anymore. We won’t be able to chat about our childhood experiences and family history and how it has affected us. We won’t be able to chat and compare notes about our cancer treatments, our team. (We had the same surgeon, oncologist and nurse). We won’t be able to share a look or a giggle. I will miss her laughter and her smile. I will miss her voice. I will miss her presence. I will miss her.
I will miss my friend, his care and his empathy, his sense of fun and irreverence, his generosity of spirit, his honesty and openness, his humbleness, and his warmth.
In my grief for my auntie and my friend I have remembered other loved ones who have died over the years, including some of my closest friends.
Love – As the saying goes it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all and people and relationships are so important to me. I can’t do life alone. So I’ve had a sense of appreciation that I am able to feel, to love and give and receive care. From my family (I will treasure the memory of the care and hugs from my son last week when we heard the news), from close friends and from others who were able to be with me, like the vicar who responded to a phone call from me saying ‘I’m really struggling, can you please pray with me’ by praying with me right then over the telephone. (He did offer to meet with me in person too).
Nostalgia– All those good times with those beautiful people.
Relief – By the time they died my auntie and my friend had a very poor quality of life. There was no hope that things could be better for them. Now they are no longer suffering in their broken bodies there is a sense of relief.
Sadness and sorrow – Not just for myself but for their closest, nearest and dearest. Thinking about their pain can be almost overwhelming.
And last but not but not least because I haven’t experienced these emotions in an alphabetical list as presented here as I’ve sought to clarify how I am feeling and put some order in the mess, but in a completely muddled up way. I’ve had a sense of
Thankfulness – For their lives, that they were part of my life.
I’m alive and I really do believe the best way to honour their lives is to live mine.
Yesterday when I wrote this I was feeling fine, today I’m not. Not at all. That’s grief, it’s complex and messy …