Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Here at Cancer Horizons, we always want to stay upbeat – after all, our emotional state is known to have a profound effect on our immune systems. Sadly though, not all of us or our loved ones will beat this demon we call cancer, and it is important for us to talk about it. It took me about ten years to finally admit that it was cancer that took my aunt, not the treatments or tests – it was the cancer that put her there in the first place. When we talk about grieving, the experts often talk about the five stages of grief – I guess you can say I was in the denial stage for quite a while.
As a person mourning a loved one – regardless of the disease or circumstance that took them – I want to make one thing perfectly clear to you – there is no “right way” to grieve. With that said, let’s talk about what no one wants to ever talk about – grief.
The Five Stages
Grieving doesn’t start when a loved one passes. Grief can begin at the time of a diagnosis and it encompasses everyone – the patient, the family, loved ones, and friends.
I mentioned above the five stages of grief that are often discussed. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you or a loved one are grieving – remember this – there is no set schedule for how long you “should” stay in each stage – or that you will necessarily hit every stage. Some people go straight to bargaining and skip denial and anger. Another person may be angry for years, having never denied.
Something else that is very important to remember is that grief is not a linear journey. What I mean by that is that the process does not always go:
For the majority of us, we will hit a stage and sit for a while, and maybe revert back to the stage before. Some may begin with bargaining, then denial, then depression. The authors of these stages have said that “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages,” but rather to describe phases that some people may go through. Just as there is no typical patient, there is no typical loss, there is no typical pathway of grief.
That old cliché of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here. The wife that is making jokes during her husband’s illness – it’s a defense mechanism to get her through the day, she is trying to stay strong for everyone. The child that can’t be hugged right now – he isn’t pushing you away – he is doing everything in his power to keep it together and fears that a hug may break down those defenses. The regimented sibling that has a list of everything that needs to be done – she isn’t unfeeling, in fact she may feel that the weight of the world is on her shoulders – what you don’t know is that the last thing on her list is to let the emotions take over.
In our English classes in high school, we heard a lot about archetypes, and how each story had at least a few of these. It has occurred to me over the last week as I’ve seen untold grief in a family very dear to me, that these archetypes exist in real life. The Joker or Jester, The Caregiver, The Innocent, and many others.
What Others Might Say
Having talked about the stages and how we may act or handle our grief, we also need to address how others act around mourners. You are going to hear words that will give you comfort, you will hear words that are truly appalling, others will make you laugh, and some will bring tears. What I have to say about all of these, is that the person saying it usually means well. The person that seems to have no tact – they just have zero clue how they are coming across. If they say something that makes you want to scream, realize that there are folks out there that have never experienced loss, that have never been in your shoes.
Moving Forward, Not Moving On
There is an old saying that grief never goes away. I believe this 100%. As we process our emotions, and eventually move into the acceptance phase, things may get easier; however, the pain never fully leaves us. There are days when one of my sons will do something funny or wonderful or completely boneheaded, that I yearn to call my Aunt Deede. I become overwhelmed with sadness that they won’t know her, except through stories and pictures.
You will have a string of good days, followed by a flood of memories that punch you in the gut. Its okay. Go with it – embrace the memories and let the tears flow – they are healing. You may have a string of bad days, then you wake up one morning and feel good. Its okay. Go with it – you are allowed to feel joy.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!