New Year Reflection, Review and Reset

I’m sitting outside on the penultimate morning of not only this year but this decade. It is cold so I’m wearing a coat, a hat and a scarf but the sky is a beautiful blue and the sun is shining, warming my face. My coffee cup warms my hands. I take a sip of my coffee; its rich flavour tastes good. I can hear birds singing and our neighbours saying their goodbyes to their Christmas visitors.

Right now life feels good.

I close my eyes.

It’s been about four months since I last spent time intentionally reflecting, reviewing and resetting and a lot has happened in that time. Sad times and happy times.

At the beginning of September our son had just moved in so we could care for him, and his dog, following surgery to fix a badly broken ankle. He couldn’t move much, had to keep his leg raised and was in pain. However, we got to spend precious time with him, and his girlfriend when she wasn’t working. I loved their chat, their laughter, their youthfulness. I loved getting to know their cheeky and energetic but sweet natured dog.

At the beginning of September we also heard the news of the death of a former colleague and friend of mine due to metastatic breast cancer. A couple of weeks later came the news of the decline in health of my auntie, again due to metastatic breast cancer. After everyone had visited to say goodbye she died. A few days later, at the beginning of October, another friend died. It’s hard to explain all my emotions. I’m still grieving but although it has been a time of deep heartache and grief it has also been a time of connectedness with others as we’ve celebrated and remembered our loved ones. I’m thankful for our reciprocal support. I’m also thankful for the support of relative strangers.

One day I felt overwhelmed with grief, fatigue and pain but somehow struggled to my exercise class. I knew I needed to be with other people but my body felt completely broken. Not surprisingly the others noticed and a few came over. I found myself tearing up and telling them all how much I hate cancer. They enveloped me with their care, encouraged me to do what I could and a couple of them invited me out for coffee and a sandwich. I felt loved.

After our son had been given the okay to start moving and weight bearing again he was able to return to his home. Our lives resumed their usual pattern, we caught up with friends, enjoyed a few outings and spent time with family and friends. We were able to visit our daughter and son-in-law to see them in their new (to them) home and we also visited one of our favourite places, North Norfolk.

I’m sure there is a psychological element to pain and this is one of the reasons why self care is so important to me, which includes discussing any concerns with my medical team. As the autumn progressed my migraines and pain became worse and worse. I met someone recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer who urged me to get checked, so after some procrastination I phoned my medical team who arranged a couple of scans. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long for my results. I received the latest news on Christmas Eve, four years to the day that I felt my lump, that my bone scan did not show any signs of metastatic disease. I’m so relieved (although it breaks my heart that other people have not had good news recently) …

These are just some of the things that have been going on in our lives since September. Looking back has given me a new perspective about this time. In the midst of all life’s difficulties (and I’m aware that other people have it worse) there has been fun and rejoicing for which I’m thankful.

The New Year is often a time to rest and take stock; to reflect, review and make resolutions and pray but these are things you can do at any time of the year. Any day can be the beginning of your new year.

There is need to wait if there are changes you want to make. One approach that I have found helpful to discern direction is to look back over a period of time and review everything that has happened. Then I reflect on what brings energy and what drains me and from there I am able to discern and make more space and time for the things that bring me energy.

I am not one for making New Years resolutions, but as I go forward into the new year I will continue with good habits, being grateful and practising gratitude. I will continue being open to change, new experiences and new people in my life. During the last few weeks I’ve been discerning a word for myself for the year ahead. This year my word is courage.

Grief

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.

Update 9/102019

Yesterday when I wrote this I was feeling fine, today I’m not. Not at all. That’s grief, it’s complex and messy …

“Bye-bye, dear, bye-bye”

Two weeks ago, the day after my auntie had been admitted to hospital with failing health due to metastatic breast cancer, I visited her with my parents and my brother.

We were pleased to find her sitting up in a chair next to her bed. Her eyes sparkled and she found the energy to laugh, smile and talk.

Following my breast cancer diagnosis, my auntie and I got to know each other in a different and new way, we developed a depth of relationship we didn’t have before, a new understanding. We didn’t see each other very often but when we did there was something special there. She thanked me for helping her talk and think about things she’d been too scared to talk and think about before. When she was first diagnosed (de novo metastatic breast cancer), her specialist nurse talked about palliative care at the hospice which had scared her, it was only when I chatted with her about the support she could have that she realised that palliative care is about living.

In hospital she talked about her children and grandchildren and about their plans for the future. A future without her.

When the time came to leave and I went to say my goodbyes my auntie looked up at me and held my gaze. There was no need to say that we probably wouldn’t see each other again.

“Now look after yourself ” she said.

“I’ll try” I replied

“Good. Love you”

“Love you. Thank you for everything and God bless you”

“And you dear, and you”.

We kissed before I turned and started to walk out. I glanced back and she smiled.

“Bye-bye, dear, bye-bye …”

Letting the tears flow

I am awake in the night with a migraine and an upset stomach. I keep thinking about the person I knew who died from secondary breast cancer recently and about her husband and her children. She was diagnosed with primary breast cancer when she was the age I am now, two years later she was diagnosed with secondary (metastatic) breast cancer and now two years later she has gone. I find it heartbreaking. When I was diagnosed she supported me, we chatted about our families, they were our concern and now she is not here for hers.

Later on I decide I need to walk off the sadness I am feeling. I enjoy the beauty of my surroundings, the warmth of the sun on my skin, I see families out enjoying the day. I feel alive, happy and thankful.

I meet up with mum, my sister-in-law and 5 and 8 year old nieces at a café. I sit down and mum’s phone rings. She answers. It is my cousin. Gulp.

When the girls go and play mum tells us it is not good news, my auntie has been admitted to hospital as she has been struggling to breathe. She was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer (de novo) about seven years ago. She is in the ward I spent time on during chemotherapy. ‘They will take good care of her’ I say and I remember my times in that ward, the women I met there, their situations, their families, their children. I think about my cousins and their children. My auntie’s grandchildren. I find it heartbreaking.

The girls are excited when I ask them if they would like me to play with them. We look at the flowers and compare their beautiful colours, we choose our favourites. I like the purple ones. We look at plants and trees, at their leaves, the patterns and textures. We notice insects, birds and a squirrel. We dance and we run. I have fun and I forget about the pain and the sorrow. It is good to be here to do this.

Later, we’ve said goodbye and I am driving home. I think about my bittersweet day and I realise I am crying. I let the tears flow.