Coping with a loss from cancer

It will take a lot of time and determination to live through a loss from cancer.

  1. When things change
  2. All your losses
  3. Practical coping mechanisms for grieving a loss from cancer
  4. Is there a time frame to survive a loss from cancer?
  5. Starting to move on after a cancer death
  6. With reflection
  7. Post-traumatic growth

Estimated read-time: 14 minutes

When things change

Your current situation in life is extremely difficult. Experiencing a loss from cancer is like no other.

It is true that life and everything else in it is transitory, all will change given time. Yet in this moment, everything seems to be changing at an unacceptable pace, which is so difficult to mentally keep up with.

What is impossible to fathom right now is that in time things will get better, you will get past the excruciating pain and one day find yourself in a better place. Either, you can actively and consciously do things to help manage the change and direct your recovery in your preferred direction. Or, simply let time pass and eventually, life will move on in a different direction that will evolve naturally.

Death is a natural process that we as humans tend to avoid unless forced to confront. Culturally we don’t like to face the reality and as a result, we almost don’t expect to happen to ourselves or even our loved ones. Even when we do acknowledge that our loved one will die and that we will experience a loss from cancer, many of us do not know what to expect.

Coping with loss

When it happens to our nearest and dearest, we see for ourselves up close what dying and death are, we are left forever changed. We now know what it looks like and how it is, all our senses are no longer naïve to death, it can never be unseen.

Soberly, we now know what is ahead of all of us and we are left with a heightened awareness of our own mortality and a definite sense of urgency not to waste a breath.

When a loved one dies, every aspect of life can be subject to change. Experiencing the upheaval of a loss from cancer may take you months or years to grieve and settle into your altered life situation. Not only have you lost someone very dear, which is a huge change to have to cope with, but also other parts of your life can be disrupted beyond recognition.

Following a loss from cancer, relationships within the family can suffer as bereavement is a highly emotive time for everyone. People deal with it in different ways, turning on each other, in sadness they lash out at those closest to them. Rifts can occur and sadly families can become fractured and not continue to survive as they existed before.

It is normal for good relationships to strengthen and provide mutual support, whilst superficial relationships tend to fall to pieces.1 Family dynamics, roles and responsibilities will also change in the wake of the death of your loved one, which can prolong the distress caused, as time is needed for everything and everyone to adjust.

A loss from cancer can also create change outside the family too. Living situations can become fluid, with the remaining families moving to a new house or town in order to be closer to each other for emotional comfort and moral support.

Your work life may often change too with the hours that you work and even the type of work changing all as a result of what has happened. Returning to work for some people can be a solace, for others it can be just far too much to take on until the initial grieving process has settled. Your confidence could have taken a knock or even returning to do the same role may now be not possible.

Whether for better or for worse your financial situation can change. Inheritances, pensions, life insurances can often take their time to be processed and are not settled for many months or even years. This can be a very frustrating further burden to impact you, with a relentless amount of paperwork heaped upon you at your very weakest.

The ability to coordinate the required documentation through the fog of grief requires a superhuman effort that only adrenaline can carry you through. This is the time to reach out to someone who is close to you, yet further from the epicentre, who can rationally help you to figure out what you need to do.

All your losses

As you wake up and your heart drops, your head will spin with all that has changed. The death of your loved one is also the death of a life you once knew.2 A compounded loss from cancer produces the butterfly effect creating changes to your overall lifestyle; your home life, social life, finances, family role, job, house and future plans can all produce an additional grief reaction.

The impact of these secondary losses you experience on top of the loss from cancer of your loved one can also cause feelings of sadness and these consequential losses need to be acknowledged and mourned.

Obviously, the impact of grief is different for everyone and depends upon how much the individual feels that their life is threatened, impaired or controlled by them. You may not realize how much something means to you and how you will react until the change and loss has occurred.

For many, the cumulative loss of all these different elements of your life changed by cancer can be initially of an unsurpassable magnitude. The totality of these losses can hurt you deep down, destroying self-confidence and has the potential to tip you into a downward spiral.

In coping with all these losses, you may well find yourself acting and thinking irrationally and impulsively. If you are not vigilant, maladaptive and disordered forms of mourning can creep in as grief becomes prolonged, lasting years. Alternatively, grief can be delayed and ignored, stored up inside until the day that it really hits you hard.

Chronic stress and exhaustion, overwhelming negative emotions of anger or fear, nightmares and hypochondria can all take over. It is normal to be distressed and saddened at this time, this is acceptable and even expected, however mental distress which holds your life back is not.

Becoming aware of your thoughts, taking responsibility for them, being able to control your emotional response will enable you to alleviate yourself from your suffering and gaining a freedom in your mind which will be the first step in getting your life back. If you are suffering depressive moods or anxiety disorders, you need to get professional help and support from your family and friends.

Practical coping mechanisms for grieving a loss from cancer

In the early days of loss, it is important to look after yourself. Try to gain control over the short-term in order to gain the strength you need to be able to become the architect for this new life you will have to construct for the future. Make a tick list of positive actions, small things that you can do every day that will force you to put one step in from of another.

The re-establishment of ‘real’ life also gives you the opportunity to feel a bit more in control of the chaos. Having a project to do or the return to work can temper your mind from becoming obsessed by the negativity of your loss and stops it working in overdrive to process the minutia of the trauma.

By working your way through this sad time, you will find purpose again in life and have the energy to eventually in time rise above your grief.3 The immersion of having somewhere to go, apart from your bed, with plenty to do and think about, can be a practical way of filling your days with more positive things. You are forced to function appropriately, and this enables you to fill the time until the eye of the storm has passed, and you are in a better place to appreciate what has happened to you with perspective.

Is there a time frame to survive a loss from cancer?

The initial period of intense pain that you feel following a loss from cancer can haunt your waking day and fuel your sleepless nights for months. Minute by minute, hour by hour your brain is clogged by thoughts as you grieve every aspect of your loss intermingled with feelings of utter disbelief, anger and shock.

Grief can alienate you from those around you, from family and friends who are grieving themselves and who perhaps don’t have the resources themselves to empathize or support your grief.

The pain can be prolonged by having additional responsibilities such as dependent children, a job to keep, bills to pay and all of life’s demands upon you, so your recovery to take longer. You are most likely acutely exhausted from the whole experience and the impact that this has had on your body and mind cannot be underestimated.

They say time is a healer for a reason, and it will take a long time. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or helplessness can last for months or even years. With the passage of time you can gain distance from the shock and slowly become more rationally aware of the entirety of the experience you have gone through.

A period of readjustment must follow and although you may not want to go there, a new direction is necessary for stabilising your own mental health. Realigning your present and your new expectations about your future are important and healthy thoughts to have so do not feel guilty. Holding on to the past and what it could have been can only serve to prolong and intensify your pain, things have changed, and you need to change your expectations in time too.4

It will always take longer to heal than you expect and almost certainly longer than those around you expect. It will always be harder on you and hurt more than you can ever have imagined it would; this is normal.

To overcome the grief of a loved one close to you will require the greatest strength you possess and will ask you to call upon your deepest reserves you didn’t even know you had.

Remember, there is help out there, there are plenty of people who have experienced similar, (though not the same) trauma, you are not alone. Reach out, take time out, heal in the best way you can, life can be good again, given the right time to heal. Life can and will be good again someday.

There is no one right way of recovery for all, take whatever positive coping steps you need to. This will not be easy, two steps forward, one step back. You will have good days and bad days, glimpses of normal moments clouded by remembering the bad moments. Eventually your life, that was spinning out of control, will regain its equilibrium, as the whirlwind of trauma slowly settles.

Appreciate that things will get better in time and in the meantime look after yourself and the loved ones you have left. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, talk, be positive and realistic, be kind to yourself and then every day take small, purposeful steps towards making that better future become your new reality.

Then, one day, a strange normality will be regained and although you will never quite be the same, you will find yourself in a new life in which you have adapted to the loss.

Coping with a loss from cancer

Starting to move on after a cancer death

Grief is a slow and gradual process of adjustment,5 it is crucial that you deal with your grief and emotional pain fully in order to ensure that you are not defined by the trauma becoming stuck in the moment for far too long. The only way to find relief and discover the ability to move on one day is through self-care, support, acceptance, letting go and time.

Give yourself a break, take time out of life to grieve, go easy on yourself. It is important to accept and challenge destructive, negative inner talk that will keep you suspended in grief.

The fact that this has happened should not be elevated in your mind into something which consumes your thoughts. Obsessively going-over a major stress, allows these negative thoughts to keep you rigidly attached to what has happened and prevents you from moving forward, past the trauma and unwilling to make it the past.6

In life, it is not what has happened to you, it is how you deal with it. Stop trying to control what you cannot change; these are the cards that you have been dealt. The only thing that you can do is change your reaction to this trauma.

As harsh as it is, you now have a choice of how you react; survive or submit. You have lived through a terminal illness, witnessed all of the trauma and experienced much of the emotional distress. You are now out the other side facing having to live life in this knowledge and new perspective. How will you choose to live now that you have seen death up close?

The fact that you have the power and ability to overcome tragedy, to move past trauma and to go on to lead a fulfilled, positive life cannot be underestimated. Your ability to mobilize this inner strength and move yourself slowly towards a better future may however be reliant upon many factors that are difficult to control such as; your personality, your natural levels of optimism, the support you have around you and your current personal situation.7

It makes sense that an optimistic outlook can help bolster yourself to be able to withstand a tough time in life. Alternatively, being a pessimist by nature will only amplify the impact a bereavement can have.8

In order to grow from this, you need to rationalise your emotions, re-frame your outlook and be determined to salvage your life. By doing so you will grow from this and you will thereby gain a wealth of resilience and inner strength in abundance.

With reflection

The day you are able to look back from a distance on the life you once had, with reflection and perspective, you will see that everything has changed. The clouds will clear and you will experience the odd sensation of catching yourself living and not just existing in survival mode.9 Although this new situation was never what you wanted or imagined, it is still life and it is still the precious gift that you possess.

The loss of someone close to you is a sobering phenomenon which everyone will experience at some stage in their lives and will force us to re-evaluate what is most important. Eventually, in time, you will come to reassess your whole life and its meaning.

Hopefully you be able to sift the positive from the negative and come to focus on what you do have, rather than what you don’t. The result? You are forever changed, scarred by this experience and hardened to life.

However, this authentic, major life challenge has given you the ability to truly live each moment, appreciate any positive you get, be grateful for your own health and be respectful of your body.

One day you will look back on this time with sadness, but still able to see past the awfulness and remember some of the good times, even the ‘normal’ days with fondness instead of painful yearning.

Reflecting after a loss from cancer

Eventually, hopefully, you can reflect upon this crossroad in your life with (unimaginably) a sense of gratitude that this profoundly traumatic time brought with it the opportunity to learn so much about yourself, about life and death. 

You may be thankful for the love you now know surrounds you and appreciative of the opportunity you have to continue living on. No matter how hard it may be, your loved one wouldn’t have wanted you to live your life in sadness.

Post-traumatic growth

There are some who can harness the energy created by trauma and re-direct it into a becoming a force for good and for change. This is called ‘Post-traumatic growth.’

This is an optimistic person who can achieve this, someone who is able to see the bigger picture and not remain stuck in the moment of that loss from cancer. They are able to rationalize to themselves, in the midst of their despair, that this traumatic life event will not last forever and there will at some stage be some light at the end of the tunnel.

It is not about denying that this terribleness has happened or shying away from feeling the greatest depths of sadness, sorrow, grief and despair provoked by your loss from cancer. The people who experience post-traumatic stress can appreciate that there is a time in life for everything, and these bad times will get better.

They possess the ability to re-frame the entire situation and are able to distance themselves on a certain level from their loss from cancer. They then have the ability to seek out any remote, vague positives they can find and formulate a plan of action to steady the ship. By putting one foot in front of another, they will slowly claw their way out of the darkness. They focus on how to get through their pain, doing whatever they personally need to do to get there. They are their own cheerleader and don’t hesitate to seek support of others if necessary.

Then, with blinkers on, they will cling to their escape plan and put all their faith in being able to get through their difficulties with the overriding aim of being able to experience life in a positive way again.

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