Lessons I Did Not Want To Learn: When Grief is the Teacher | Cancer-Champions | Health Care Consulting

These past 12 months have been difficult.

We have experienced loss both professionally and personally, and we find ourselves facing this new year with a heavy heart. 

Unfortunately, I know that there are many of you who have not yet realized the outcomes that you had hoped for. If I may, I’d like to share a few insights from my personal journey with grief in the hopes they might help someone.

First, let’s define it. What is grief?

Grief is the normal response to loss. However, what some might not realize is that loss is not always associated with the death of a loved one. For example, many people grieve the loss of the way things used to be. 

Regarding cancer, the transition from ending treatment to extended or long-term survival is often filled with “new normals.” For example, this might include long-term treatment side effects. Furthermore, many women who have survived breast cancer often suffer a deep sense of loss due to the sexual side effects of their treatments. Oftentimes, this type of grief is disenfranchised by their partners and health care providers. 

Therefore, it is important to recognize whether what you are feeling is transitional grief or grief spurred by a change of what once was. 

In other words, grief is our emotional response to loss, and mourning is the process of adapting after that loss. 

I lost both of my parents to cancer within 5 years of one another. Each of their deaths caused me to experience intense feelings of grief, however, I mourned them both differently. 

My father was diagnosed first, as he was incidentally diagnosed in the emergency room.  He chose not to undergo any therapy, as his disease was pretty extensive. He was gone 6 weeks later. 

His death was unexpected and sudden, and it left me feeling numb, angry, and quite frankly, depressed. 

I only just lost my mother last year. In the 4 years since my father’s death, she had been hospitalized for various health events 4 times.  

The fourth time she was admitted was due to a fractured shoulder. During the preoperative workup, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Although a cancer diagnosis was not expected, advocating for my mom within the healthcare system for the previous 4 years prevented me from experiencing the “shock” that had come with Daddy’s diagnosis. Although, it did feel like a cruel pile on.  

At this point in my life, I was already fully engaged in healthcare problem solving, and I had unceremoniously added an oncology consult to the list of things to do. 

Mom opted for treatment, although scheduling was complicated by the rehab for her shoulder.  Eventually, she underwent extensive radiation therapy that was followed by 8 months of chemotherapy.  

We were hopeful that the toll of the treatment on her quality of life would be well worth it. However, like so many other families, her will to fight eventually wore out.  

After learning that her current therapy was no longer keeping cancer at bay, Mom opted to discontinue treatment.

After consulting with her palliative care team, she chose to initiate the support of hospice within her home, and our family was able to enjoy 4 of the sweetest months with her. 

As I write this, it has been almost exactly a year since Mom died. I have felt a range of emotions, some of which still continue to surprise me. 

As a student in a class that I never wanted to take, I have learned first-hand how hard it is to lose a loved one. 

I can only hope that my insights offer some sort of help or comfort to those who also find themselves facing the unthinkable. 

Here’s what I learned:

  • I had to face the reality of my parents’ deaths, and I feel the pain of that loss.
  • I realized that my grief response would be completely unique to me, and I had to resist the urge to compare my response to that of other family members. 
  • My unique relationship with each of my parents affected my response to each of their deaths, and the difference in those responses was okay. 
  • I had to accept the support of my friends and community. This support was pivotal in helping me adjust to a life without the physical presence of my parents. 
  • My faith gives me the hope to continue, as I believe their physical departure from this earth was not a permanent goodbye, but instead, a see you later.

If you would like to learn more about palliative care, hospice, or get connected with trusted grief consultants/counselors please visit us https://cancer-champions.com/contact/ to schedule a complimentary call.