On Grief and Loss in Cancer: Part 4

Welcome back to the Caring Connection series on grief and loss in cancer.

This is the fourth out of six posts. 

Frank Ostaseski, in his book The Five Invitations (2017), offered five “mutually supportive principles, permeated with love”, five “bottomless practices that can be continually explored and deepened”. He wrote about hospice experiences in that book. In this series, I (humbly) apply Ostaseski’s ideas to cancer experiences during Covid-19, reflecting on illness, social isolation, and things we have lost.

It may be helpful to see the original Five Invitations as whole, so here they are:

  • Don’t wait
  • Welcome everything, push away nothing
  • Bring your whole self to the experience
  • Find a place of rest in the middle of things
  • Cultivate “don’t know” mind

Maybe because of the topics I like to read about or maybe because of my life’s experience, I find a sense of soothing in these words. Maybe you do too. For some, this blog post will feel like a peaceful return to center. For others, the soft, emotional language will feel uncomfortable or even painful, the call to “welcome everything” about as appealing as welcoming a paper-cut. Or a hand on a hot stove. Or giving up.

But, hang on. No one should pick up any idea or take any action from these posts that they have not first picked up, examined, and accepted for themselves. “Primum non nocere” – first do no harm. Your oncologist took this oath (a part of the Hippocratic Oath) as a duty in caring for you. Now, I invite you to take an oath as you care for yourself: To thine own self be true. Let’s call it Invitation Zero. As you walk through this series, keep in mind always that you are caring for yourself, and therefore it is good and right for you to be true to yourself. To thine own self be true.

Let us move forward into Invitation 3.

Invitation 3: Bring your whole self to the experience.

Who are you? Are you a parent? A sibling? A child? What’s your gender? What’s your race? What is your nationality? Ethnicity? What is your sexual orientation? What is your gender identification? What are your politics? What faith are you? What makes you… you?

Is a medical diagnosis a part of your identity? Has it always been?

Much, or some, of our identity can feel lost when we become “cancer patients” or “cancer caregivers”. Some people lose their jobs, some people lose abilities that are necessary to do previously easy hobbies and activities, some people lose sensory ability and cannot enjoy basic comforts, some people lose their sex drive or ability.

In the midst of Covid-19, we are also limited in access to activities or people who make us feel like ourselves. Maybe we miss the experience of physically going to religious services, or we don’t quite feel like a grandparent when we cannot hug our grandchildren. This, too, is a loss of who we are.

But as long as we are alive, we are still, fundamentally, ourselves. And so when day-to-day life—even the strange, isolated day-to-day life of 2020—reaches us, we are able to bring our whole selves to the experience. This means bringing the parts of us which are well put-together and the parts of us that feel torn apart. This means feeling, at once, the joy of a pleasant moment and the sorrow of a challenging time.

We are often encouraged to bring a brave face to our experiences. Or we might feel that if we feel a particular way (happy, sad, angry), we “should” feel that way consistently. But our whole selves are complicated and resilient. Our whole selves can meet the world today, just as it is.

Bringing our whole selves to our experience can also bring our whole experience of loss banging and screaming at the floodgates. This is a normal, understandable, acceptable, and healthy part of the grieving process. Our feelings can come in waves.

So, what is there to do?

There is no right answer. To thine own self be true. Some of us will benefit from connecting with our social workers and therapists. Others will benefit from more time with friends. Yet others will find peace in prayer and contemplation. There is no right answer to how you “should” respond to waves of challenging feelings.

Consider, instead of finding “the answer” or “the way to cope”, dabble in being you. What is it like to be you in this moment, as your whole self?

I am convinced that I can find wisdom in my whole self that is missing from a blocked-off, compartmentalized me. To bring your whole self to your experience, to this breath, is to find wisdom. Don’t wait: there is no better time than now to find your own wisdom, in your own experience.

So it is with grief—it rolls in waves that each person receives in their own way. Even without focusing on the word grief, or the associated word death, or bereavement, this blog series is about grief.

This series is not about grieving end of life, though deaths (from the past, present, or anticipated future) might contribute to the grief. It is about grieving the loss of what was expectable “life as usual” both in the day-to-day and in cancer treatment.

In your grief, you are not alone. Maybe you found inspiration in this blog post. Read it as many times as you would like! There will be 2 more. Maybe you are interested in delving deeper by reading a book on the topic. (Recommended authors include Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Frank Ostaseski, and Stephen Levine.) Or, maybe you are ready find support by joining a community, and there are many online communities to join for people impacted by cancer. You can find such communities at Online Support page. If you need help, or do not know where to begin, reach out to your medical team including your Oncology Social Worker or Nurse Navigator. On this journey, you are not alone.

Meditation: With each breath in grief and in life, bring your whole self. Lose sight of the right answer, at least sometimes, and in your search find rest in the middle of things. Welcome everything and push nothing away, then when the magic happens, grab it. Don’t wait. And, with every step, to thine own self be true.

Olga Loraine Kofman is a former Social Work Intern at Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. A recent Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research grad, she resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Caring Connection staff is very grateful for her previous work with us and for the posts which she shares with us. This particular series is written as she (like many of us) self-quarantines during the 2020 pandemic.

One thought on “On Grief and Loss in Cancer: Part 4

  1. Olga, thank you for these posts. They are timely and so very helpful. Grief is a process, and your posts are so on target. Thanks.

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