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When You Lose Someone To Cancer | 7 Lessons of Loss

July 12th, 2018 |
Emotional Support, Relationships

by lynnehartke | Survivor: Breast Cancer    Connect

I placed the toy dump truck next to the yellow road grader on a shelf in the back shed. I dumped the kiddie pool and brought in the bottles of bubbles—all reminders of the four days of play with visiting grandchildren.

As I picked up the water toys, I couldn’t help but remember the special shelf my dad had kept in the garage for outdoor toys and the area in the basement Mom had organized for when the grandchildren (my children) came to play.

Suddenly, I was hit with an intense longing to call my parents. But I couldn’t. Dad had died from melanoma. Nine months later, Mom had died from ovarian cancer.

Although several years have passed, sometimes I am still surprised by grief. When this happens, I try to be kind to myself, for these are the lessons I have learned:

1. The anger part of grief is real.

At Dad’s burial, a woman said to me, “Your dad wouldn't want you to be sad. He wouldn't want you to cry.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from taking off her head. Later when I was able to think rationally, I knew she was only did what many of us do in similar situations—place a platitude on a gaping wound.

Lesson: Grief often wears a mask, tricking you into thinking you are mad at someone or something else. But it is the grief talking. Or shouting.

2. Sadness happens.

Like I said, I catch myself wanting to call my parents. To hear Dad say, "I love you, Pooh Bear." To ask my mom’s advice about being a grandparent. When I remember they are gone, I am hit by a sad bomb.

Lesson: Don't be so quick to push yourself to "get over it." Your normal now includes the loss of someone important to you. You have changed in ways you may never fully grasp. Mourning is part of the process of healing.

3. Grief can manifest itself in physical ways.

For three months after the death of my dad I had diarrhea. Every stinking day. Pun intended. (Sorry if that is TMI, but it's the truth.) I had every test done. All tests were normal.

Finally, I sat in the office with my family doctor who has known me for years. She asked me, “Have you tried journaling?” I told her I was the Queen of Journaling, that I was talking openly about my parents’ cancer journeys, that I was blogging about it, that I was being as healthy as I knew how to be.

“Grief has to come out somewhere,” she said. (Pun not intended.) “This is your body's way of dealing with it.”

Lesson: See the professionals. Have the tests. Go to a counselor. Give your body time to heal.

4. Remember.

When attending a niece's wedding, we all recalled how Dad liked to ask a married couple, "Are you still in love?" We joked about not knowing what to pack because Mom didn’t send out a list. We laughed. And then we cried. Just a little.

Lesson: Some feel that it is too painful to bring up the memory of someone who has died. The opposite is true. The grieving person needs to talk, to remember, to laugh, to cry, to know that the person they loved is not forgotten.

5. Create a tangible memorial.

I made a quilt of my parents' t-shirts.

Lesson: Memorials—planting a tree, sewing a quilt, creating an online page, participating in a charity event in the name of a loved one—are healthy outlets and an important part of the grieving process.

6. In the darkness, God may seem silent, but He is there.

Some of my usual spiritual practices seemed dry as dust after losing both parents in less than a year. I have been at this faith thing long enough to know that in all relationships there are seasons of closeness and seasons of distance. You don't abandon the whole thing when you are groping around in the darkness trying to figure it out.

Lesson: Shaky faith is still faith.

7. Part of the difficulty of grieving is returning to routine tasks and rediscovering purpose and meaning.

In my parents’ final months, they gave me carte blanche to write about their cancer journeys. This surprised me, until I realized that my words inscribed their memories onto paper and declared, “We were here.”

After their deaths, I struggled to find words. After months of writing about eternity and dying, everything else seemed meaningless. My journal entries became almost nonexistent—snatches of words—as if the syllables were struggling to leak out the end of my pen. I discovered I needed time away from writing and spent time pursuing other creative outlets. Eventually, I heard the whisper of words. That, more than anything, told me I was healing.

Lesson: Extend grace to yourself. You may need to lay aside old routines and pick up new ones. Wherever you experience a spark of interest, adventure down that path, and see where it takes you.

My memoir, "Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty, and Faith in the Hardest Places", recounts my story and my parents’ story with cancer.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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lynnehartke's picture
Lynne Hartke writes stories of courage, beauty, and belonging—belonging to family, community and to a loving God at Her cancer story, Under a Desert Sky, was published in 2017. Her biggest take-away from having cancer: Quit waiting for someday.