If I said, “The ‘C’ word”, you would know exactly what I’m referring to. Cancer has earned many names and initials over the years. Yet there’s one word that we still can’t seem to find ways to discuss, we struggle to accept it, and we simply fear it. This “G” word I’m referring to is GRIEF. It is morbid, ugly, depressing, dark, emotionally draining, and just so painful. Grieving sucks the life out of you. It releases every ounce of tears we’re capable of shedding. It is a hopeless feeling that leaves you longing to find even the slightest light at the end of that tunnel.
When a child is born, the universe glows with excitement, our hearts burst with love, and we light up in the presence of this precious, innocent new life. We envision this new family and all the joyous moments to come. We project into the future, trying to envision who this little earth angel will become and all the milestones we will celebrate with and for them.
It’s fascinating to reflect on the individuals, events, and detours that contribute to our wave of emotions throughout life. In just one day our emotions are at our absolute highest of highs, only to later in the day feel like the rug was literally pulled out from under our feet. Getting a phone call or sitting in a doctor’s office hearing you have cancer is the perfect example.
I was two weeks away from beginning my junior year in college when told I had leukemia. I was so excited for school: new beginnings, closer to graduating, I had transferred to a better school, and it was one more year until I could legally drink alcohol. Life was good, my friends, until I got news about the “C” word, which is INSTANTLY when I felt the “G” word! I immediately was consumed by thoughts of losing my hair, missing school for an entire year, being unable to work, panicking over how I would pay off my credit card debt, potentially being infertile from chemo, and likely never finding a soulmate because I was now a cancer survivor with a ton of baggage. What I grieved the most was my life, and if I would even have one after all of this.
I mention that story to show you just one example of how I stared grief in the eyes, and for a very long time. Hell, I still do as a 16-year cancer survivor. But you know what? I have been involved in oncology ever since my diagnosis, and I have learned more than I sometimes realize about grief and the beauty behind it (yes, you read that correctly. I used grief and beauty in the same sentence). Before I go on, let me preface this by clarifying that I am not saying grief is a beautiful feeling. It is so much more than that (reread my introduction if you need to be reminded).
Let’s start here: why is grief so painful? Well, that’s simple. Because that individual is no longer physically here with us. It’s so painful because we care about them so much, and we grow to love them. Or, we empathize as we envision that happening to us. Another reason it’s so painful is because we’re already juggling so many stressors, even before learning of someone’s death. It’s painful because we may know of an individual who is actively dying, and so often we have no clue what they need or how we can help. So not only do we feel helpless; we feel hopeless too. And I’m only referring to grieving the loss of someone. I could write an entire chapter on all the things we grieve throughout life!
But what if we take those heavy emotions and weighted blankets of “why” that completely take over our minds and bodies, and instead we reframe it in a way that reflects on love, compassion, friendship, family? Would you rather care and love with the risk of grieving heavily versus never caring or loving at all? This is yet another example of how many choices we are given throughout life. As humans, we need one another for support, confirmation, reassurance, and connection. We need community and to feel like we belong. And all of that comes with grief; whether you believe it then or not.
My friends, we grieve every single day. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “The only constant in life is change”. The world is ever-evolving, and when you’re confronted with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, you grieve in a way that nobody can prepare you for. You grieve your pre-cancer self and pre-cancer life, while saddened over what this new “survivorship” will present, and unfortunately there is no way to actually know what that will look like.
BUT (there’s always a but), know this much: we grieve because we love. And we love because we care. And we care because we build so many relationships and friendships that mold our lives and inspire us to become who we are. And when any of that is taken from us, we feel that sense of loss and longing for what was. I often am asked, “How do you do what you do? Isn’t it so hard losing group members and always having to hear such sad news?” If you want to know my true, genuine answer, the answer is, “It’s easy to do my job. I get to learn their stories and provide the support and community they need. I get to see them build lifelong friendships and bonds that wouldn’t exist without my job. The love I have for them outweighs any sadness we experience.” I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
Regardless of what or who you grieve, first always sit with it and as we say in the Young Adult Survivors United support groups, “feel your feels”. It’s OK to be sad and vulnerable. It’s also OK to be angry and outraged, as long as you aren’t harming yourself or others. And it’s OK to be in denial at times. All of these are indeed stages of grief. All I ask is that you never feel the need to carry this emotional burden by yourself. You absolutely do not, and so many others out there are doing and thinking the same thing. When darkness rises and you can’t pick yourself up, take advantage of the support that’s available. Is it a friend or family member? Maybe a colleague? Perhaps a church member? Or, maybe a grief support group or therapist can help. I know it’s hard to take that first step, but I’m here to assure you that it will be worth it and life changing. I PROMISE.
When it comes to grief, for some reason it remains so taboo. I used to shy away from it too, trust me. I have learned over the years that grief is a layer of love. Though painful, let it be the reminder we need to cherish what once was. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Ever since I chose to live by that quote, I’ve viewed grief differently and in a much healthier and meaningful way. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk about grief, because I promise you that others are thinking and feeling the same way you are. I assure you. I only wonder what would happen if we shared our grieving stories as much as we share other parts of our lives. Think about it…