Grief & Loss Spiritual Care On Your Journey
People who are newly diagnosed or in treatment for cancer, and those around them, experience grief. Grief is complicated, and it's a journey.
Grief is a response to loss. In the cancer community, that usually means a loss of health. But it might also mean losing your job, if you're unable to work. And maybe that means that you start to wonder who you are, if you're no longer a teacher, a police officer, a nurse. When you can't coach Little League anymore, or cook your family's favorite dinner. Grief may look like the loss of your role as the primary wage earner. If you're a caregiver, a cancer diagnosis could mean the loss of your independence. It could mean the loss of your future together. All of these losses cause grief.
Grief can feel like sadness. It can also feel like many other things: anger, betrayal, loneliness, fear. You might feel grief as emotions. You might cry and know that you are sad. You might also feel grief physically. You might feel a knot in your stomach. Your heart might race. You might feel tired or have a headache. You might feel everything all at once, and feel mad/sad/crazy and just want to scream. You may feel like you’re just drowning and overwhelmed. Or you might feel nothing. Sometimes grief just feels numb.
Grieving a loss is never easy, but sometimes, it’s just…complicated. It might be complicated because your relationship to the person taking care of you (or you are caring for) is complicated – maybe your marriage hit a rocky patch lately, or you never really got along well with your younger sister. Maybe you haven’t spoken to your mother in 20 years. Maybe there were things unsaid between you, or things you wish could be unsaid. Maybe the cancer itself is particularly traumatic, sudden, or complicated. Maybe this loss is just one in a string of tragedies threatening to overwhelm you. There are a million reasons why this could be a complicated experience for you, and none of them mean there’s anything wrong with you. But now, more than ever, might be a good time to call a chaplain. When life gets complicated, you deserve to have people around you, helping you navigate it.
The essence of being human is connectedness. We’re connected to ourselves, to other people and to the world. Just as being human requires connectedness, you can’t be connected without eventual separation and loss. To be human is to have the capacity to love and to be loved. Religious people understand that people are created “in the image of God,” -- the task is to value the people and things that God has given, so that losing them brings sadness. Loss is inevitable in the human schema.
Grieving is hard because grief is complex and multifaceted. Most experiences of loss intertwine several kinds of loss. When you’re newly diagnosed with cancer, or in treatment, or a survivor, chances are that you’ll be grieving different kinds of losses at different points in your cancer journey. Sometimes you’ll experience one kind of loss more profoundly than another. Sometimes you will feel overwhelmed with several kinds of loss at once. What’s important to remember is that grief is normal.
Among the many types of loss, with cancer, the loss of relationship is primary. When your relationship with another person changes, or you lose that relationship, you lose the opportunity to share experiences, talk to, touch and engage with that person. When you become a cancer patient or a caregiver to someone with cancer, your relationship with others – spouse, children, friends – inevitably changes. The relationships change because you change. With change comes loss, and with loss comes grief. Often, cancer causes the loss of a sense of self. Cheerleading friends and family may tell you, “Don’t let cancer define who you are!” That approach might be helpful to you. Or it might not be helpful. With cancer, many people lose images of themselves that they’ve constructed, sometimes over many years. Plans are deferred or abandoned altogether. You’re grieving the loss of the person that you had hoped to be.
Cancer and its treatments can also cause functional loss. Surgery or repeated surgeries, pain, neuropathy… all take their toll. You can’t walk as far as you used to, or you can’t walk at all. You were the star of your yoga class; now, you can barely pick your legs up off the floor when you try to attain the Bow pose. You wear a colostomy bag or carry a cane. In turn, these losses create a loss of autonomy. You’re dependent on people to take care of you. You’re grateful – and resentful at the same time. You have needs – but you don’t want to be a burden.
Most important, remember that grieving is a process. Working through grief takes time. You can’t talk to someone for 30 minutes and make it better. Keep talking. And when you need to, talk some more. Write in a journal. Paint a picture. Find ways to express your grief.
Well-meaning people will say many unhelpful things to you when you’re grieving. But you need to grieve in your own way.
People will tell you all kinds of things. "Let it out! Keeping everything inside won't help you." Or maybe, "Stay calm. If you behave normally, you'll feel better." You'll find no lack of advice. Remember that these people are trying to be helpful. But no one can tell you how to grieve. That's something uniquely personal. There is no instruction book, there's no timeline, and there's no right and wrong. When it comes to grieving, anything goes.
Many people cry, some scream, some stomp their feet. But other people sit quietly. Others run. They draw, paint, and write poetry. They sculpt. They hug a close friend. They want to be alone. You may want to talk. You may not want to talk. You may want to talk one minute and then change your mind. That’s okay. You may have no idea what you need. In that case, talking to a chaplain might be helpful. Chaplains or another trusted counselor can hear where you are, and may hear things you can’t; they may be able to help you develop strategies that work for you.
The loss that caused you to grieve isn’t going to go away. Likewise, your grief isn’t something that’s just going to go away. It’s not something wrong with you that needs to get fixed. Grief is a normal response to a significant loss. It is universal and inescapable. It is not a sickness or a disease, so it's not "curable.” It's a mistake to deny that you're grieving, or refuse to grieve. As painful as it is, you have to engage the grieving process. It's something you have to live through. Grief is a journey.
But it will change, over time. The intense crazy feeling won’t last forever. You may find it helpful to journal or talk with a chaplain or counselor periodically. That way you can reflect on the ways you have changed, and the ways your grief has changed. These changes are normal. When you stop feeling overwhelmed all the time, it does not mean you have stopped grieving, or stopped loving the person you lost. It only means that you are adjusting to a new normal – to a world that has been forever changed.