Revisiting Grief

I ran into a friend of a friend a little over a week ago that I haven’t seen in a long time at a local restaurant. One of the things Laurel and I have in common is that we have both lost people we’ve loved due to cancer (my mother and her husband). She was with a group of about six or seven others. There was nothing remarkable about anyone’s appearance. Everyone looked normal. I stopped by her table for a quick hello as I left the restaurant and learned she was eating with her grief group from hospice. Her husband died around three years ago and although they do not meet formally as a group anymore, she explained they still get together every so often to check in on how everyone is doing.

“So, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m vertical,” she told me.

She looked great. I know. Even though I heard it in my head, it was my first reaction. Looking great has nothing to do with how a person is feeling. I even used the word “normal” above to describe her.

It’s cringe-worthy.

I was thankful I hadn’t said it out loud. I know so well that someone can look like they have it all together on the outside when the inside is a hot mess. This is true whether the inside is slammed with treatment side effects, pain from sickness, anxiety, depression, or grief. The inside often is in some state of constant churning. It may be such a present feeling that it is normal for you. Normal always fluctuates for me and has an overpowering element of uncertainty of the future. Normal has to be rooted in the NOW. I’m good at holding it together on the outside. Most of the time.

Grief is messy.

Being vertical shouldn’t be so hard. But it can be.

There is something comforting about being with others who have similar experiences. Support groups are great for this if it fits your comfort level. I went to one after my mom died. It was more of a workshop setting. It gave me a better understanding of my feelings and explained a few things that I wouldn’t otherwise have attributed to grief. Individual counseling is another option to support someone through grief.

Running into Laurel made me pause to revisit what I’ve learned about grief over the years. I reminded myself of many points worth remembering.

Grief Reminders

  • Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. A grieving person needs more restorative sleep.
  • Grief is hard. It’s tougher to make decisions and trust others, including trusting your own abilities while grieving.
  • Many question truths in their personal belief systems such as religious beliefs, the meaning of life, and ideas of fairness.
  • There is a sense of having no control over anything.
  • Grief is distracting. Functioning in day-to-day activities or at work can be affected. There is a tendency to forget things.
  • Some people may bump into things, drop stuff, or be prone to accidents. They do not attribute these events to grief and wonder what in the world is wrong with them.
  • Some people find it easier to be at work and like having a focus away from grief, while others find it difficult to be in their work environment. Some who find an escape from grief at work find that it overwhelms them again as soon as they get home where the memories live.
  • Dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other important events will be bittersweet. The anniversary of a death will be dreaded and the day after will feel better again because there is a whole year before it happens again.
  • Grief is real and ongoing. A person doesn’t just get over it. The goal isn’t to get over a loss but to find a way to get through it.
  • People grieve losses other than death. Loss of jobs, a move, divorce, a friendship or relationship, failed plans, and changes in health are all sources of grief.
  • It doesn’t mean someone is over their grief if they are having a good day. They may just be getting through the day vertically.
  • Grief spurts come out of nowhere. They may not last long but can be intense.
  • There is no timeline. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. What works for one person may not work for another.
  • Grief can teach us about life.

I find a lot of strength in affirmations. I’ve read and collected many, blended them together, and written my own when I have a specific need. I have close to one hundred in my affirmation file and I’m always coming up with more. Here is my group of affirmations on grief. Perhaps one or two will jump out as applicable to a situation in your life.

Affirmations That Acknowledge Grief

I allow myself to fully feel my feelings, both happy and sad.

I can still feel love in the world without my loved one.

I seek the help I need and accept help when it’s offered.

I hold on to love and will let go of the grief when I’m ready.

I am surrounded by seen and unseen love and support.

I am kind to myself while I grieve and heal.

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

I move away from memories that bring me pain and focus on memories that bring me happiness and peace.

Grieving is a part of life and I am doing okay.

There are many feelings involved with grief and loss and it’s okay to feel all of them.

I still feel my lost loved one’s presence and it comforts me.

I grieve loss in healthy ways that are right for me.

There is no timeline for when grieving is done.

Grieving ebbs and flows differently for everyone.

I recognize difficult moments and know they will pass.

I choose to grieve my loss and move forward at my own pace.

It is okay to feel happy again.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

I am grateful for the time I shared with my loved one.

This experience has allowed me to discover new truths about myself.

I am done being sad for today and I move on to other emotions.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

There are many people I can talk to who will listen to how I’m feeling.

I feel supported during this difficult time.

I am learning how life works for me with these new circumstances.

After I’ve given all this unsolicited advice, I think it’s also important to avoid offering easy answers or clichéd expressions to someone who is grieving. As an example, I often hear people say God needed another angel when someone has died. It’s meant to be comforting. I don’t believe this. Heaven has enough angels. Keeping people around longer on Earth that spread goodness seems like a better idea to me. We need those people to stick around. Someone who is grieving needs to feel listened to and feel comfortable enough to cry and express their feelings with the support of their friends. Telling someone how they should be feeling or dismissing their feelings with some tired or cute remark invalidates grief.

I have grieved my parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, and people I have never personally met who have died from cancer. I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving some deaths, and that’s okay. It’s there. I can still be happy. I’ve grieved a child and an unfulfilled dream when cancer put a screeching halt on plans to become an adoptive parent. I’ve grieved relationships that have changed. I’ve grieved my teaching career when it became clear it was in my best interest to retire. I’ve grieved my past because I can’t reclaim my life and health to what it was before cancer. I’ve grieved my present because of disappointment and anger and changes that still don’t fit my plans. I continue to grieve my future because of fears. Although it isn’t what this post is about, I also have hope for my future and I will not let go of my hope.

There are many parts of myself that I grieve. I choose to keep many of those thoughts private for now. It’s my work to do, difficult to share, and very hard for me to put into words.

Grief is universal but everyone does it differently. There is no one right way to do it, but it needs to happen in its own time and in its own way. I don’t want to forget my loved ones who have died. I do want to quiet memories that haunt me. I do want to remember all the happy times I’ve shared with people who’ve died.

Laurel is incorporating grief into her life as she keeps living and moving forward. Looking fine on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story. It seldom does. I hope I can meet people with compassion and empathy to offer whatever support is needed.

Three affirmations from my list jump out at me as I write today:

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

 

What are your thoughts on grief?

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?