My Mom: Memories of Love and Loss

My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.

Why?

Grief.

I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.

Today is Mother’s Day.

I am ready to share.

I think.

Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.

Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.

It meant a lot.

I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.

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These are two of the many violets in my home.

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Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.

I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.

Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.

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Black-eyed Susans took over the garden.

When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.

Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.

We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.

These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.

Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.

Another shredding is always possible.

That’s grief.

I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.

March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.

Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.

On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.

I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.

I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.

I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.

I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.

I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.

If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.

I know how much I was loved.

That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.

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From Fog to Focus

Welcome back! Yesterday, I wrote about how chemo fog can affect day-to-day cognitive functioning for those receiving cancer treatments. Now on to the fog you see when you look out a window and can’t see a darn thing except fog. It’s as if the world comes to a halt, only extending as far as your range of vision.

Literary images of fog usually contain some lurking figure in the distance that’s barely discernible, but is there waiting. A lone figure limps across the isolated barren moor in a horror tale. Fog fills uninviting alleys. Fog mysteriously envelops a person and he or she disappears forever.

Most of us are more familiar with this type of fog. You can’t see your mailbox from an inside window looking out. An outstretched arm in front of your face is invisible. Driving in fog is frightening when you can’t see anything in front of you, and you inch along using the white line at the side of the road as a guide. Too much hope is placed on that white painted line.

Planes are grounded. Ships don’t sail. People are cautioned to stay off the road.

Fog limits visibility.

Or does it?

For planes, ships, and cars, the answer is yes. Fog forces us to slow down. People get so busy running from one thing to the next that they scarcely know what their thoughts even are. They live race car lives going at break neck speed around the same track over and over. These cars go nowhere. You can get off the racetrack. Slowing down gives time for thoughts and ideas to change, develop, and strengthen. It may be a subtle shift from not knowing to knowing.

Foggy days have their advantages. I like them. For me personally, fog has reflective benefits. Fog offers introspection and time to think. When fog settles in around the house and changes plans, I just take a step back and wonder what it is I’m being given the opportunity to figure out. Then I proceed to hunker down and figure it out.

Fog leads us to knowing.

In many ways I found myself in foggy territory while I was on leave from teaching. Eventually, it became clear to me that there were more reasons, better reasons, to retire than to return. I have not known what would unfold at oncology appointments or what choices would be best for me. Eventually, I would get information or a feeling that would sway me in a particular direction. There have been relationships I have been unsure about, but when I looked at repetitive patterns, my choices suddenly seemed obvious. It takes time. I need to sit in the fog for that subtle shift to happen.

Last winter brought my part of Wisconsin several foggy days. Plans changed again, and I just planned an indoor day. There was nowhere to hurry, no “have tos” that day, and more of a relaxed pace. When you know you don’t have to go anywhere, there is no worry and anxiety. You are safe in your slippers inside drinking some green tea with pomegranate with you feet propped up. Maybe the world needs more foggy days.

Fog leads to clarity.

Some years I identify a word as a theme for the year. My word for 2019 is FOCUS. At the end of 2018, I was walking in the arboretum imagining thoughts of the year ahead materializing just a few steps ahead of me on the path. Nature really reveals a lot. I heard words of warmth, feeling, and finally focus. I am not sure what big feelings I will have. Maybe it’s a reminder to rely on my intuition and trust my feelings. I am also not sure of what exactly is the significance of the word focus. I waited for more, but nothing came.

It was a cloudy day, but not foggy.

I decided something would happen to let me know where my focus needed to be.

My focus continues to be on my health and happiness. Both are continued works in progress.

It can’t always be sunshine and blue skies. Rain clears away what a person no longer needs. Winds carry new and old away. Winter gives the earth a chance to rest and eventually renew.

And the fog, whereas it first seems like it closes in and confines someone, it redefines. Fog offers a moment in time that is a respite from reality. When it lifts, it has the potential to offer clarity, freedom, and direction. Let it roll in and sit with it for a while. When it’s ready and you’ve had time to sort through confusion, it will roll out, leaving you behind with clarity on what needs to happen.

Sometimes fog just happens and it isn’t safe to be out.

You can’t find clarity wandering around aimlessly on a foggy moor or driving down a road you can’t see. They are lonely and scary places.

Wait until you can see.

The fog will lift.

Today I feel rather foggy on the inside. I don’t have much “ummph.” I think it’s a good day to get super comfy and listen to what messages I may be trying to send myself. Maybe I’ll take a nap and awaken back in a world of sunshine and warmth. Maybe it’s less foggy in my dreams.

Consider responding:

  • How do you find clarity and purpose when you feel foggy?

 

Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

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Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?

Make A New Door

There is a saying that goes along the lines that a window opens when a door closes. It fits if you’re Maria in The Sound of Music and venturing out of the convent on a new adventure. Otherwise, not so much. I don’t care for it and find it’s misguided. I get the point being made, but the visual doesn’t work for me.

Have you ever tried to walk out a window? I did when I was about ten years old. I held a practice evacuation drill out our dining room window in case other routes were blocked in the event of a fire. It must have been Fire Prevention Week, and well, it was me, talking about my day and being all teacher-like. It was straight forward enough, but climbing out the window is how it happens, not walking. Climbing is more involved than walking. A door closing and a window opening are not equivalent at all.

What about when a window closes? Is opening a gate appropriate? Would you come and go from a skylight? Should you dig a tunnel? No! None of these are equivalent either. They are insane comparisons.

But a door! It closed! What is one to do?

Make a new door . . . a better door.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I love everything about this door. The ivy growth, fresh green planks, and carved heart are all perfect. This will be the door I take when I need to imagine a new door for myself. Maybe one day I will find it.

I don’t have an issue with new endeavors, but it is just wrong to say that walking through windows is the same as walking through doors. Try an experiment and come and go from your home for a week through a window and see if it’s really the best route. Chances are you’ll get better at climbing in and out of a window, but you might also attract the attention of local officers asking to see your identification.

The better path is to use your strengths and personal power tools to create a new door. Maybe you’ll make several doors and mark them A, B, and C, behind which are potential new opportunities.

My trouble is I sometimes don’t know what the new doors are really about until after I’ve walked through them and figure a few things out. For example, when I took a second year medical leave, the purpose was two-fold. My school district really was trying to make life less stressful for me. Leaving a slim chance of returning to business as usual also didn’t close the teaching door entirely. Strangely enough, when the teaching door closed, it instantly transformed into a retirement door and there I was already, moving step-by-step, and making progress. It was the door I needed in disguise.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I have worked hard to make new doors for myself. I’m still working on the courage to walk through a couple of them. It’s a work in progress and sometimes a little scary. Courage is a good companion to have at my side.

Reiki is one of the new doors. Newish. I’ve dragged my feet. The door is there all shiny and ready. I’ve used the door but haven’t invited many to join me. It could be just for me. I don’t know yet. The opportunity is there to give and to positively affect others. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still team medicine all the way – there are just many pieces to wellness that can attribute to overall health. My basement transformed itself fairly effortlessly to a Reiki studio through envisioning a new possibility and help from Amazon. I used to think that I needed a strong calling to become a Reiki Master, but now my thoughts are different. If I can have even more energy available for self-healing, I will take it. Refusing a healing opportunity makes no sense. If I can share that with others so that they feel happier and healthier, I am working on that, too.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

Blogging is another new door. It isn’t what I set out to do. It was more of an avenue that I thought would take me someplace else, which is still possible. I’m not blogging because it brings me great recognition or monetary gain. It doesn’t.

It does give me a platform for sharing thoughts and ideas that come from my heart. I’m in it for my heart – that’s why I write.

Realizing this is causing me to reassess my motivation to be represented by an agent. Is that a door I need or am I potentially even happier with my blogging door? Sure, I’d love a little more recognition and visibility. I am excited to see what doors may open and what doors I continue to create for myself through writing.

Staying active is also a new door. It’s never too late to make healthy changes. Having more physical skills would help, but I have more than I used to have. A lot of motivation is needed to keep me focused on fitness. I liken this process to one new door after the other. Every time I experience some modicum of success and feel pretty impressed with myself, I see another door waiting for me. For example, I have very tiny biceps that I can now flex. I am fascinated with them. I can’t do much else with them so I need to keep working. I’m not sure what I see as my next step, but I will figure it out along the way.

There have been hard doors.

Doors of grief and loss.

Doors of changing definitions of normal.

Doors of hard truths.

Doors through which only I can walk.

The door marked cancer has been a doozy. I didn’t make this door or ask for this door. It’s stained with pain, sickness, always something unknown. No narratives, fact sheets, observations, or best guesses even come close to what walking through this door is like. I kind of thought I knew from what I saw my mom go through, but I so did not know. The experience is individualized. No one truly understands, just like I can’t understand another’s experience. Some come close. Empathy and compassion are wonderful supports.

Yet, the hardest times can often lead to the greatest moments in your life. Hard times make and show a person’s character. Who are you when everything really sucks? Sure, I get grumpy and down. Sometimes I cry. But I also try really hard to hold to my core beliefs. My challenges have made me mentally and physically stronger. Supposedly, I have more courage. I’m not sure that’s true. Having cancer doesn’t mark me as an automatic recipient for a badge of courage. Hardly. It doesn’t make me inspirational either. It does make me go through things that many others do not. That’s what I have to offer. Maybe something else emerges from within, but I‘m not so different from anyone else.

Not all doors need to be hard.

Doors of rebirth and renewal.

Doors of love and light.

Doors of hope. I love those doors.

Doors again through which only I can walk.

Trust is huge to walk someplace new.

If one door closes, make all the new doors you need and trust they will be better doors.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

 

Trauma, Cancer, and Hope

Trauma

A good friend spent part of her weekend doing some reading on trauma for work and discovered the acronym H.O.P.E. standing for the phrase Hold On Pain Ends. She knows I have tremendous faith in the transformative power of hope. Holding on and believing that all will be well again is a wonderful feeling and vision for healing.

Many people think of trauma as it relates to military personnel who return from active duty with PTSD. People who have been in accidents, suffered abuse, had violence directed at them, witnessed atrocities, been through disasters, lost loved ones, and have been through (or continue to go through) an illness also can be diagnosed with PTSD. Any negative event can cause trauma.

Cancer and Trauma

PTSD is a mental health condition that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. Cancer survivors have experienced their fair share of traumatic events. Painful and emotionally stressful tests, treatments, receiving bad news, hard emotions to process, and living with chronic or painful physical issues are possible sources of trauma. Looking in the mirror at a changed body, living with lymphedema, and having the pain of neuropathy are daily reminders for some people. Fear of recurrence may always be on a person’s mind. Some anxiety is normal and quite frankly unavoidable for cancer patients and survivors. When these feelings persist or worsen, it could be a sign of ongoing trauma. Symptoms may include things like nightmares, trouble concentrating, feeling fearful, guilty, angry, avoiding things that trigger bad memories, and loss of interest in people or activities you used to enjoy. Other possibilities may also cause these.

I believe seeking professional help is the best approach to address working through trauma. Sharing what is painful can help identify the root cause whether the pain is physical or emotional. Effective solutions can be tailored to a person’s specific needs. Speaking to family, friends, or support groups are other possible choices. Even writing it out can be helpful in sorting out what you think and how you feel as a pathway to ending pain.

Hope

My thoughts keep coming back to that acronym about holding on because pain ends. Hope is hope. How else can a person take an active role in feeling physically and mentally healthier? No official trauma labels need to be involved. Everyone has times where something painful is experienced. I am not a mental health professional, but nonetheless have a few thoughts to share for dealing with pain. I think of it as a way to Help Other People Excel. I can’t say that’s original. I also can’t find a source to credit.

Pain can be a teacher.

Sometimes I need to experience pain and sit with it so I know what not to do. When I’m sore, my body is often bringing something to my attention. I may need to rest. Maybe I’m doing a movement incorrectly. Possibly I’m using new muscles and my body is thanking me for using them but reminding me to do so gradually. I’m also being taught something if I experience emotional pain. Every experience teaches me something, even the ones I find emotionally difficult. You can’t ignore physical or emotional pain. Both get worse if you do. Listen to your body.

Grief is allowed.

You can’t just “get over” things. Just as with the grief when someone passes, many events can still be a passing of something and involve grieving. Again, just as with the grief when someone passes, it comes in waves. One day you are just fine with not working and having a flexible schedule, and the next day this very same thing has you in tears all day. Some insensitive comments leave you unfazed, and then there are others that you believe are beyond cruel that echo over and over again. Some grieve body parts. There are many things you “used to” do that now no longer exist. Those who have had cancer have lost a lot. There can be unexpected spurts of grief that come at the worst times. It’s normal. Allowing yourself time to feel feelings will eventually lead to more good days than bad.

Find a new focus.

Starting something new gives an opportunity to move forward with something different. Fresh starts have their merits. It could be a new hobby or interest. I have mentioned before that working out has turned into a positive focus for me. I also have more time to write. Maybe it’s something bigger like a new job, relationship, home, or city. Change may be exactly what is needed. If nothing else, change serves as a good distraction. Everyone needs a break from whatever makes life harder.

Exercise.

Here is my repetitive plug for exercise. Physical activity can help you see you are stronger than you know. This helps physically and emotionally. I have a long ways to go to make myself even stronger, but I’m stronger than I used to be. Exercise helps me feel more confident and in control. It makes me feel good. I feel less stressed. Exercise provides an opportunity for me to work on my inner strength while I work on improving my body. Finding and reclaiming power by moving is extremely therapeutic. Work with a punching bag is a very effective way to reclaim power.

Get outside.

The effects of being outdoors for me are similar to exercising. It makes me feel good and less stressed just like exercise does. Fresh air and nature calms me. Problems often sort themselves out as I spend time in the woods. My head always feels clearer. Maybe it’s because nature is grounding. If you do not have access to a handy outdoor source like a park, farm, or green spaces, something as small as a garden plot can give you the opportunity to dig, to let dirt fall through your fingers, to weed, to plant, and to watch something new grow. Container gardening has become very popular in areas where green space is limited. This is also a great option if you have some physical limitations. Sitting in the shade with a refreshing lemonade and reading a good book still counts as getting outside.

Forgiveness.

Forgive yourself for past actions. I have heard a lot of people say how important it is to forgive others, show universal love and kindness, speak positively, and have at least one good friend you can count on. All important. Even more important is to forgive yourself, love yourself, have positive self-talk, and be your own friend. I have been pretty hard on myself and now I am much kinder. I believe pain can end when we treat ourselves like we treat others. Each day is a new opportunity to treat yourself well with kindness and forgiveness. Reset every morning.

Believe.

Believe in hope. Expect the best. Hope begets hope. For me, things always come back to my unwavering belief in hope. One of my favorite hope quotes reads:

“When the world says,

‘Give up,’

Hope whispers,

‘Try it one more time.’ “   – Unknown

I love that the source is unknown. It somehow makes it even more appealing to me. It’s as if there is an anonymous and universal whisper that could be from anyone anywhere in the world. The whisper may be a gentle hush. I like thinking of it that way. I see it in the flame of a candle. I hear it when a bird sings. I feel it with good friends. I find it in some of my favorite places. You know where some of those places are if you know me well.

Here is one of my favorite places where I hear the hush. Can you hear it, too?

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Author Anne Lamott describes a hush as something sacred. Hope whispers softly and pushes us to keep trying. Hope as a hush is sacred indeed. Pain ends. Hope remains. It can replace pain and grow exponentially. I continue to listen to the whispers of hope.

Unringing A Bell

You can’t unring a bell.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is very much the same. You can’t go back to the way things were even after surgeries, radiation, and treatment are finished, even if you are assured the cancer is gone. The fact remains that you had it. Everything you went through has inherently changed you in some way.

Others may not see it. Physical appearance doesn’t change drastically for many. Family and friends may tell you that you look the same to them. You are still the same you. It’s intended to be reassuring. There is some truth there. (I find it annoying.) To say you look the same on the outside and imply that you are the same on the inside is what some people mean. That is not fair, nor their call. I know of one marriage that ended because a friend’s husband didn’t understand his wife was still dealing with a lot of difficult emotions. She told him, but she looked “just fine” and everything was “done” and needed to get back to “normal” so he couldn’t understand why everything else wasn’t therefore fine by default. Certainly, there could have been other factors to this marriage ending. I know of another marriage that ended because the husband understood there were changes on the inside as well as on the outside, and he wasn’t attracted to the outside any more. What a guy! There could have been other reasons behind this marriage ending, too, but it seems like cancer became the impetus.

Then again others may see it all too well. Somehow a person who has suffered and is somehow different in a good way may be too much for others to accept. They would be very happy to go back to how things used to be in order to feed what they need. This is where disapproval, insults, and being told that YOU have done something wrong come into play as attempts to keep you in a place that works for them. These relationships should end. There is no room for toxic people in a life that has seen its share of toxicity. I personally deal with toxic drugs almost every week in my efforts to stay well. I can’t deal with toxic people or negativity. Whether finished with treatment, currently in treatment, or in ongoing treatment, do not choose to tolerate toxic negativity from any person. Enough. January is a good time to start fresh.

Maybe you feel not much has changed on the outside or the inside. My position is inside changes took place because you grew from what you experienced. Change accompanies growth. Those who don’t like change don’t have as much opportunity for growth. I used to be one of these people and it’s still hard for me. Change is uncertain and often I don’t understand why some things need to change. I’m trying to understand that changes are there to teach me something and I am working to be open to changes. Changes can be new beginnings. January is a good time for these, too. New beginnings after diagnosis and treatment may be a new job, home, or relationship. Maybe you look at life differently, and have reexamined your belief systems or time commitments.

One constant remains: You can never not have had cancer once you’ve had it. That bell was rung.

I’m tired of its clanging and repetition.

I believe you can ring other bells louder so the sounds drown out other bells.

Ring the bell of resiliency.

We are all capable of more than we know. Resilience is another one of those intangible factors that makes people rise up time and time again after tough times. Yes, problems are inevitable. How a person deals with them is what matters. Being resilient means you find a way to continue to thrive even when there are problems. Taking care of yourself is part of being resilient. Physical and emotional self-care are non-negotiable. Exercise, eat well, meditate, find joy. When your outer and inner self are strong, it means another layer of resolve has been added to resiliency that problems cannot break through, whether the problems present themselves as people, situations, or things.

Ring the bell of joy.

Do more of what you love. Have that cookie. Take a day off and do something fun, frivolous, and completely fantastic. No need to justify, or explain, or defend it. For me, I choose to walk trails and be among trees. I sit on my sun porch and listen to birds. I laugh at movies I’ve seen too many times. I call friends or get together with them. I enjoy exercising (usually) and enjoy it even more when I’m done and reaping the benefits.

Have another cookie.

Yes, I know I mentioned that one twice.

Ring the bell of gratitude.

I believe there is a richness and depth in appreciation that gives life both more purpose and meaning. That thing where you think of five things to be grateful for at the end of each day works. Feeling gratitude is easier when you feel healthy. What about when you aren’t feeling well at all? Knowing myself as I do, I know my emotional and physical health does impact what I’m capable of feeling in the gratitude realm. The other night I had one of these moments. It was about twenty-four hours post treatment and I was flushed and hot from the neck up while the rest of me had the chills. I was low energy and felt a little sick. But I knew if I could get to bed and fall asleep that it would pass and tomorrow would be better. That was about all the gratitude I could muster. My point is it was enough. We are human and do the best we can on any given day. That is the space we all share where health status doesn’t matter.

Ring the bell of knowing yourself.

Take whatever time you need. It isn’t selfish to take time for yourself and know what you think. It isn’t selfish to do what is best for you. Live your beliefs. Others don’t have to like them or agree with them. You do. I thought I knew myself pretty darn well before the cancer diagnosis, but it sure caused me to be more deliberate with how I live. I am more sure of myself now than ever, even though I continue to be a magnificent work in progress.

Ring the bell of standing strong.

You may have to keep ringing a lot of bells longer than you had planned until the unwanted bells stop ringing. Keep at it. You’re stronger than naysayers. Statistics do not know you. You’re more than a number. I get tired of bell ringing, but remember that the sounds create important tones and vibrations. These bells make beautiful music.

Nope, you can’t unring a bell. You can’t let anyone else ring it for you either. Ring all the bells you need to ring until you hear a song fit for a carillon tower. Your song.

 

For reflection:

What bells would you like to stop ringing in the new year?

What bells would you like to hear ring more?

A Strong Mind

Some choices are a lot easier to make than others. Choosing the length of a walk on a given day is an easy choice. Ordering a favorite meal at a restaurant is easy. Snuggling up with a good book is an easy choice. Sleeping in is a no brainer.

Other choices are harder. We all face tougher decisions about many things ranging from work, finances, home, relationships, marriage, parenting, and health to name a few.

Giving myself a chance is often the hardest. I can be my own worst critic. It’s easy to support others, and yet I doubt myself with the exact same task I am so confident others can achieve. Sometimes I perceive a physical drawback; other times it’s a mental obstacle of self-doubt, inner criticism, and negative self-talk. The mental obstacle always is present, causing me to question a physical choice. Just as I do physical strength training, I can strengthen my mind.

How do I maintain a strong mind?

I can’t do (insert difficult activity here). Well, what if I could? What would it look like? How would I get there? Why do I think so definitively that I can’t? When my fitness coach asks me for two or three more reps during a workout, I respond that I can do three more and I do. This wasn’t always the case. When I think of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t do something, I have to stop myself and come up with reasons why I should absolutely and unequivocally do it. It isn’t that I have to do something, but rather that I get to do something. Positive self-talk and compassion sends negative thoughts on their way.

If I don’t believe in myself, I’ve already greatly limited my chances to succeed. There are times when it feels like I am the only one believing in me. Being stubborn is usually a great strength of mine that I need to recognize and work to my advantage. I must tell myself that I can and reframe things in the affirmative.

Planning is a huge reason for many of my successes. I am a planner. When I have a plan, success is more likely. Plans used to always work for me. Then cancer threw a wrench into some of those plans and success took a lot more work. Success had to be redefined. I needed a lot more contingency plans and attention to so many details that at times all it seemed I did was planning and plans were never put in motion. Plans so often changed. Then I transitioned into a “plan and adjust phase” where I wouldn’t take it as an automatic failure if Plan A didn’t work out. I would adjust a bit and call Plan B a learning opportunity. I would just keep chipping away at whatever until I found a way to succeed. This still works well for me, although I often feel like I have to work a lot harder to pull off something physical than someone who looks like they’re achieving it effortlessly.

Looks like. I have no idea what effort someone may be making physically or mentally. It also rings true that others do not understand how hard I’m working. We are all the same that way.

As an aside, I would like to state that when my plans change, it isn’t something I want to happen. I want to keep plans, but can’t always make it work. Please don’t take it personally. I’m already too hard on myself when I have to cancel or turn something down in anticipation of side effects I know are coming. I’m working on finding more soft spaces within myself.

Breathing resets my body and gives my mind a reset as well. Maybe it’s just thirty seconds of good, deep, diaphragmatic belly breaths. It’s all I need to remind myself that I am the boss of me, that I am strong, and that I can do it. Meditation has proven health benefits in that it reduces stress, blood pressure, and has sleep benefits. Even a deep sigh with an extra long exhale can trigger the automatic nervous system from being over stimulated to being more balanced.

Music also helps me, whether I need something relaxing and classic, or I’m in the mood for more current hits. Do country roads take you home? Is it all rock and roll to you? Does Bach have your back? Fine, fine, I’ll stop (in the name of love). The point is to have music available that you love and that suits what you need. Music expresses emotions and works with parts of the brain in ways that words alone do not.

Movement resets both my mind and body. Sometimes I think exercise really does more for me emotionally than physically. Even though there is a chill in the air, the cold, fresh air makes me feel alive. Not too long ago, I took a walk in one of my favorite places on a very windy day. A slight mist became heavier. I didn’t care. In fact, I absolutely loved it and knew it was exactly where I needed to be. There’s also a correlation to walking faster which helps keep my heart happy. Although it sounds counterintuitive, moving around lessens fatigue. It may feel like the last thing I want to do. Exercise helps clear mental fog and I feel better overall when I’ve finished.

Having cancer compounds negative chatter all the more. It can step in instantly when something doesn’t work out and tries really hard to stop me. There is no room for that kind of chatter if I am to maintain my strong mind. And I am. I just need to keep giving myself the chance I know I deserve.

And so do you. We are all the same that way, too.