Grief Has No Timeline: A Mesothelioma Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

via Flickr - x1klima
via Flickr – x1klima

There is no right or wrong way to grieve… that is what people say. From my perspective, I not only agree but would add that grief has no timeline.

I lost my dad to clear cell renal carcinoma after a quick 5-month battle that literally had him wasting away before our eyes. My once vibrant and boisterous dad was a mere shadow of himself when he finally took his last breath. His death was welcome at that point, an end to his suffering, but that didn’t make losing him any easier. I’m no stranger to grief and death, having been a mesothelioma cancer survivor for 11 years, a patient advocate for much of that time, and in being involved in the cancer community, you get to know other people fighting cancer. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that has been known for years as an old man’s disease, where many people die from this cancer within 18 months. Educating yourself about this cancer is so important.

The stark reality is that many people don’t make it past the 18 months they’re given. When people find me, and I get to know them, it is usually in the early days of their diagnosis. They are looking for hope, for inspiration, for proof that someone can live beyond the timeline they’re given. I get to know them through their journey, and for some, the outcome is good with relatively few complications or setbacks, and others are not fortunate. Through issues with infections, recurrence, or unforeseen complications, I try to be there as a support and a shoulder to cry on.  Inevitably, I learn of their passing from a family member, or worse, a Facebook post. Every single time it knocks the air out of me. Even when I know it’s coming it breaks my heart. Their hopes rely on a certain treatment such as immunotherapy to cure them, and once again, cancer wins.

Sometimes the grief is palatable. I sit at my dining room table and sob. It is all I can do. I feel so hopeless, that no matter what I tried to do, it didn’t make a difference. I can imagine what the family is going through, having gone through something similar myself. The guilt that inevitably comes after the sobbing subsides. Survivor’s guilt is what they call it. Wondering what else I could have done to help, and guilt for my own health while my friend suffered. It is all part of the grief journey. I felt guilty having a great day when I knew they were in the hospital, and I found myself downplaying my own bad days because they weren’t as bad as what other’s had been or were going through. Even though my own heart was breaking for them.

Grief is funny that way. It manifests so many different ways. Anger, guilt, overwhelming sadness, indifference. Being numb to it because it’s easier than feeling the pain that comes with loss. All I know is that the grief journey is vastly different for everyone and society is quick to dismiss people for “not getting over it and moving on” which is so hurtful and wrong. People are so afraid of other people’s feeling that they either drop out of the grieving person’s life completely or tell the person to “move on because it’s been a year already”. Then, when someone actually does deal well with the grief and appears to be doing well, they are chastised for “getting over it too quick”. In my own experience, people would see my mom a few months after my dad passed and say with surprise in their voice “Wow! She looks so good!” Tell me, just how is she supposed to look? Is she supposed to dress in black, wear dark sunglasses and never be seen in public until the proper time has gone by? NO. Life still goes on for us, even though we lost our loved one. We still have bills to pay, jobs to go to, and other family to take care of. I know my dad would not want my mom to stop living simply because he is not here. For many people I know who are grieving they look fine, but it is the quiet time when the grief hits. The strangest things trigger it. For me, it is when the weather changes. My dad always loved talking about the weather. Or what struck me this year is that I feel closest to him when I am cooking. My dad loved to cook, it was his love language. As I was making Thanksgiving dinner this year, getting the turkey ready, I was surprised as the tears started to fall, thinking of all those years my dad made Thanksgiving dinner for us. I closed my eyes and could almost hear him humming as he prepped the stuffing to go in the bird. I laughed through the tears and knew he was with me.

For me, the best way I can help is to talk about my dad or the friends that I’ve lost. I have friends who lost their son and brother to suicide. I honor their memory of him by asking about him. By saying his name and letting them grieve. He was real, he was here, he was important. Just because someone is physically no longer on earth with us does not mean you stop caring about them or talking about them. It’s important to the loved ones to honor that. I know it’s hard, I know it’s uncomfortable but it’s real, and it will help more than any sympathy card could.

No matter how grief comes into your life just know it is a journey. I don’t know if the loss gets easier or you just become used to the feeling of that hole left by their passing, all I know that death is part of the circle of life and grieving is a natural part of it. There is no right way, there is no wrong way, there is just your way, and that is perfect. TC mark

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