“People talk about grief as emptiness, but it’s not empty. It’s full. Heavy. Not an absence to fill. A weight to pull. Your skin caught on hooks chained to rough boulders made of all the futures you thought you’d have.” -Elan Mastai
Grief is heavy. It is a test of faith. It is an emotion that makes you question your purpose. It begs you to ask, “Why me?” Grief is a lot of time spent thinking about what could have been. It is a lot of wondering, “What if?” It is a feeling of weakness. It is loneliness personified. It is a loss of innocence. It can be not only an actual death, but a figurative one as well… the death of your old self. Grief can haunt you to your core if you let it. It can break you down if you allow it to. Grief changes people… and as hard as it is to navigate, when you look closely, you can say with conviction that grief exists because of love. You grieve the loss of something beautiful or someone special that once was. You grieve the reminder of a past life, a life before cancer… a much simpler time. But grief wouldn’t exist without love, without happiness. You must have one to have the other.
“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” -Vicki Harrison
Almost three years out from my diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, I find that my grief varies from day to day. I am sure you can agree that certain thoughts, images, and conversations trigger the blanket of grief to allow its weight to fall heavy on you. Hearing the news about cancer touching someone’s life or hearing about a new diagnosis brings me right back to the moment that changed my world forever. Does that happen to you? I am brought immediately back to my kitchen floor – the location where I sat for hours feeling helpless and numb after my own diagnosis. As selfish as it may sound, hearing about a loss in the cancer community almost immediately makes me think of my own personal worst-case scenario. Even if I was in a great mental headspace on that particular day, hearing news about a major loss sends me in a downward spiral, a nosedive deep into the darkest spaces of my mind – the spaces I have been working so hard to try to make fade away. Days come and go, and I find myself either allowing the grief to take hold of me or fighting hard against the current to keep my head above water.
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” – Dante Alighieri
Catching a glimpse of a photograph of my pre-cancer life is the most grief triggering moment for me. A snapshot of a life that feels as though it never happened. Happy memories that seem so faded, so far away, that I have almost no recollection of those moments. When I look at a picture of my pre-cancer self, I truly don’t even recognize who that person is. What did she think about? What were her greatest worries? What did she spend her time doing, if not constantly examining her body, constantly questioning her thoughts, constantly worrying about her future, or lack thereof?
It has come to the point where I have officially segmented my life into two parts: pre-cancer and post-cancer… old me and new me. When I force myself to examine my feelings and truly sit in my grief, the ‘type A’ in me tends to create a mental “pros and cons” list. This list documents how much cancer and the overwhelming grief has changed my life, as well as the lives of the people I love the most. I had always been a fairly anxious person, but fighting cancer brought those feelings of anxiety to a whole new level. All innocence was lost… a headache would never again just simply be “a headache,” a doctor’s office would never be visited again without feeling pangs of my severe post-traumatic stress. Gone were my once trivial worries, and now each day brought about new challenges that I had to conquer.
As difficult as it is to admit, however, there is a positive side to my experiences and the overwhelming grief. Because of my struggles, I take much better care of myself. I make time for self-care – something as a mom of two young boys I never made a priority prior to cancer. I find that I tend to savor the little moments more than I used to. I take less for granted and truly enjoy every aspect of my life. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy life before; I just didn’t grasp or comprehend how quickly it could all be taken away from me. With any grief I feel day to day, I try to sit in my thoughts and then remind myself of the positive things that have come of it all, even when it is difficult to do so.
“It’s not simply forgetting and moving on; that’s never how it works. That’s not how grief works. That’s not how sadness works… You’ve got to make a little home inside of you for those memories and feelings. Whether you want them there or not, those memories are a part of you now… So you have to make room. You have to allow yourself to feel them deeply and accept that they are a piece of you. You will never be able to force out their intensity, their depth, their persistence. So let them in instead… Feel them and accept them, and know that even though they are a part of your yesterday, they do not get to define your tomorrow.”
– Nikki Banas
I now believe that in order to heal, you need to allow your body to feel. Rather than brush the difficult emotions under the rug, allow them to take space in your mind. Let them run their course through your body. Take the time to find ways to release that grief and sadness so that you truly work to move past the feelings rather than bury them deeper within you. If you take the time to do so, I think you will surprise yourself. I think you will find that grief, in a way, can reveal the real you. True grief, true heartbreak, real trauma can change the course of your life in many ways.
Promise me that you will not let the grief overtake you. Promise me that you will try to use your grief to propel you forward. Let your hard times inspire you to follow a new path. Use this newfound fire to inspire others around you. Sharing the difficulties of what you are going through, or what you have been through, could truly change someone’s life. I believe now that grief doesn’t grow with you, but instead you grow around it. You will never be the same as you once were. Let that catapult you into the future with a new sense of purpose, a new sense of urgency. We GET the opportunity to feel these feelings. At this exact moment, as you read these words, you are a living and breathing human being with the opportunity to change your path. Yes, bad things have happened. Yes, grief will most likely be felt in the future… but in the moments where you feel like you can come up for air, feel empowered to turn your story into one that you are proud of. Remind yourself that where there is grief, there is love. Let the love that remains light the way.