Even if the fight has been long, a death from cancer can still be a shocking and surprising end.1
- When a loved one dies
- Understanding grief
- Stages of grief
- Grief is different for everyone
- Physical reactions to grief
- Looking after yourself when grieving
- Grief counseling
When your loved one dies
I am so sorry for your loss. Cancer is a disgrace of a disease, stealing these precious people from our lives in a shocking way. There is no consolidation, nothing anyone can say or do that will take the pain away.
Initially you may feel completely numb, then your head will reel with feelings from anger, confusion, disbelief and utter frustration. You may even feel a strange sense of relief from the unbelievable stress you have been under during the downward spiral of the illness. The swirl of all these feelings will torment you as your grief is fully felt and they have the potential to linger for a long time.2
All the energy you had as a caregiver suddenly has no outlet, you need to find positive ways to cope in order to avoid sinking into negative feelings of;
Grief is the process of appreciating and adapting to all the changes death brings.
The full significance of your loss may not be felt in the immediacy and your mind may have trouble processing all the different aspects of your life which will be affected by your bereavement. The realization of what these secondary losses are will take time to be felt as the full consequence of the death unfolds.
Grief, the price you must pay for love, is a rollercoaster that plunges you deep into the depths of the abyss. It is normal, but this doesn’t make it better. The world has changed.
This tidal wave of grief is not something you should deny yourself; it is a natural process that your body needs to experience in order to heal. Even if you try to resist the descent into grief, at some point your body and mind will be overcome by sadness and you will be brought down by the weight of the void your loved one has left.
The release of emotion through the unstoppable tears and the extreme sadness of heartache is the healthy way in which your body deals with the pain. When held hostage by grief your brain is clouded and you feel incapable of thinking rationally, making decisions or even functioning day to day.
It is important to allow yourself to grieve as a definite period of sorrow is beneficial to your healing, is completely understandable and absolutely required. This is not a time to be hard on yourself, it is typical to feel a swirl of a lot of emotions and it is important that you do go through this process, no matter how hard it is to experience.
There is a distinct difference between the inner, private grief which individuals experience, and the outer mourning expressed by families and the wider community.
Importance is placed on mourning by every society throughout the ages as it is an expression of support offered by the community to the grieving family and friends in the initial days after the death. A period of mourning can be witnessed across all religions and cultures through the generations, worldwide and each community has their own ways of burying and honoring their dead in a ceremonial fashion.
Through mourning, the family can take comfort in the meaning of their loved one’s life, celebrate their achievements and appreciate the contribution to the world they made.3
Stages of grief
It is usual to experience various stages in the process of grieving. The decline in a terminal illness gives forewarning of the impending death and the adjustment process often starts before the death has happened.
This means that sadly many couples will have already entered stages of grief together as they mourn the death of their life as they knew it in what is called ‘anticipatory grief’.
The theory defining the stages of grief were originally identified by a Swiss-American psychiatrist called Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s. The five stages she identified were of;
Grief is your body’s natural coping mechanism, but it does not have a set pattern. The stages of the Kübler-Ross theory are rarely experienced in neat, distinct phases as we now know that grief affects people as a more fluid experience.
At one stage of the day you will be in the depth of despair, then move to sadness, then plunge back into despair. It will be varying shades of grey for a while as emotions pinball their way around your psyche as you jump from memory to thoughts of the future which should have been, processing the entirety of your loss.
They say that you will have good days and bad, but initially you will feel that difference from moment to moment, hour to hour. As time passes, this pattern of intensity will ease, and you will get through this and feel entirely more stable.
Don’t be surprised, appreciate that the sadness of grief can express itself by stirring your emotions in uncontrolled ways and these irrational, emotional reactions to normal life can bubble just below the surface for long after you think is possible. You may experience emotions that you never really had a problem with before. Scratch the surface and you may overreact angrily when normally you wouldn’t have behaved in this way, or you may cry and become emotional at the strangest of times.
The appreciation must be that the initial extreme pain of grief is a healthy, temporary state even if it does not feel like it. Grief is the process of healing5 which your mind, body and soul has to go through so that the pain can be released allowing your life to eventually get better, much better.
Grief is different for everyone
Grief manifests itself completely differently in everyone and every person’s traumatic experience and subsequent emotional reaction to depends on a number of factors. These include;
- their baseline state of mind at the time
- circumstances surrounding the death
- their own inner resilience and determination
- their personal outlook
- the resources they have to rely upon
- the spiritual guidance there to support them.
How you cope initially and in the fullness of time is an entirely individual process.
For some grief is all consuming, you cannot think or breathe a second thought, the status quo which endures for months or even years after the death.
For others, denial kicks and your mind refuses to even think about the person you have lost in any shape or form. By reacting this way, your mind simply shuts down and by doing so, shuts grief out. This coping mechanism is an act of self-preservation try to protect you from the painful thoughts as refusing to acknowledge what has happened makes living feel easier.6
Both ways of reacting and every experience in-between does not reflect how close you were to your loved one or how dear they were to you. You can have many mixed emotions when someone close to you dies.
A death from cancer can be drawn out over a long period of time, with many treatment protocols and lots of ups and downs. The person may have suffered for a long time and although you may not be happy the person has died, you may feel that at least they are no longer in pain or ill and even that at least this terrible rollercoaster has stopped. Watching someone fade away in front of you is a terrible sight that can haunt you for a long time.
You may feel a sense of relief that it is all finally over now, then feel guilty for thinking that. You may feel desperate not to forget a second or you may feel just too sad to remember. How you grieve is a personal experience which you yourself cannot predict.
Physical reactions to grief
Grief can completely consume and overwhelm you for a surprisingly long time. Initially it can completely disarm you of any previous capabilities as it renders you in a basic state of survival; void of any ability to look after others, never mind yourself. The loss of your loved one can bring a change to your role and identity in life. This can make you feel vulnerable, alone and lost as a person who must go on living in this different world.
Physical reactions to grief can be paralyzing and all consuming. You feel lethargic, emptied of energy, vitality and lacking any zest for life. You become forgetful and permanently distracted as your mind is elsewhere which in turn makes you become vacant and apathetic to life.
In a desperate act to try to come to terms what has just happened, your mind races as your brain flits from numbness and shock, to relieving the pain. Under the weight of big emotions of anger, sadness, fear, regret, guilt and blame the only underlying constant is the yearning for your loved one who is gone.
Under the strain of grief your body experiences the full expression of your mind’s pain. You feel sick, dizzy and on the verge of a panic attack as your body is gripped by sadness. Your throat and chest seize up and your back and shoulders lock as a direct result of the inescapable tension and pain. It feels impossible to take a soothing deep breath and the irregular, shallow breathing that you are left with, does not feel healthy.
Insomnia can kick in, even at rest you are tortured by anxiety-filled dreams, nightmares or intense visions. Headaches, heart palpitations and high blood pressure are all common reactions as stress levels become chronically high.
Your appetite changes, you either turn to food for comfort or experience a complete loss of appetite, as the will to nourish your own body feels pointless. Your immune system is weakened,7 you are now more vulnerable to illness yourself, the thought of which only adds to your generalized sense of unease.
You become hyper-sensitive to the world, everything and everyone around you causes you irritation and nothing anyone can say or do seems to be helpful, in fact it is just the opposite. You are forgetful and neglectful of yourself and of others around you, for a seemingly unending amount of time.
Your mind aches, your soul aches, your body aches.
Looking after yourself when grieving
At this point in time you must appreciate that you are in desperate need of some special looking after.
In bereavement you need to pay special attention to your own health for at least two years past the trauma, to help prevent your own health from suffering.8 In order to heal from grief, you need to focus upon nurturing your whole self which not only includes your body, mind and soul but also the social and spiritual aspects of your life.
Initially just focus on being, surviving the day and putting one foot in front of the other; you need to rest, sleep and do no more than you have to. Your world becomes small as you contract into yourself and that’s ok, you need some private time to heal and re-build from the inside out.
Basic self-care of personal hygiene, drinking enough liquid, making a meal and keeping a house may all slide. If you feel like you are not coping, there is no shame, allow someone to help you and don’t be too proud.
How you frame a situation, your own inner explanatory style is key to your own mental wellbeing, a pessimistic outlook is a low starting point when trauma strikes.9 So, you need to look within and try to formulate a plan to get through this.
That is what your loved one would want and expect, don’t confuse moving on in a positive direction as not loving or missing the person you lost. In fact, it is entirely the opposite, as by looking are yourself and your health you are honoring their wishes and their memory which is surely the greatest tribute you can give.
You also are alive, and this is something to be grateful for. You owe it to yourself and your loved one to live as full a time as you can, especially since they now don’t get to have their life.
What do you think could help you get out of this hole? Everyone has different individual coping mechanisms and survival methods.
Many people turn to faith, find a project, do exercise, focus upon good nutrition, meditate, get complementary therapies, lose themselves in child-rearing, find a hobby or turn to work as a relief to trauma. You need to find something constructive, just for yourself which connects you, with the person within under all the pain and with others in order to rediscover the energy of life again. Do whatever it takes to replenish your wounded soul.
In the short-term, finding a way of distracting yourself from your pain can be an extremely useful coping mechanism which will get you through each day, to let time pass for you to heal. The caveat being, that you need to be aware that these are positive ways of dealing with trauma.
Be mindful of the trappings of alcohol, drugs, smoking or food and they don’t end up becoming a problem themselves. It is easy to become addicted to the positive associations these crutches will give you, especially if the place you are coming out of has been particularly dark. Although they are a very tempting escapism in the short-term to numb your pain, be wise enough to realize that they will not be healing or helpful to your health and recovery in the future.
After the initial rawness has healed, it is advisable to talk to someone professionally about your grief, even if that takes months to happen. You can become lost inside yourself, isolated from friends who you feel could never relate and family who are also grieving themselves.
You can also reach a point where you still need support, yet your personal relationships are exhausted by the story on repeat. Reaching out to get professional grief counselling may feel intimidating, unnecessary or a further burden, especially if you received counselling during the illness of your partner or spouse.
Opening up again, re-living the sadness and thinking about the future you never had and were denied by from cancer, can make even considering professional help an exhausting prospect. Even the thought of it can be off-putting, talking and talking about it won’t change the facts.
However, counselling does not have to be about raking up painful memories, it can be focused upon you and helping you navigate through your current challenges. Professional grief counselling, at any stage in your healing journey, can help you find the strength and give you the tools to move forward to a better place in your life.
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Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.
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