On Grief and Loss in Cancer: Part 6

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

This is the final post, six 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 conclude our series with Invitation 5.

Invitation 5. Cultivate “don’t know” mind

Have you ever spoken with a stranger and become very curious about them? Because they aren’t a family member or a friend, you could really listen with authentic, open-minded interest.

In this curious way, it is a gift not to know! When I “don’t know” in this way I am not confused nor stupid… that is, I have not suddenly lost all my education or my life’s experience when I experience “don’t know” mind. Instead, I just let go of answers and judgments or right or wrong. I am open-minded, curious about the many options possible in this life, letting go of the need for “the answer” or being right.

Yet it is a normal part of the process of cancer diagnosis and treatment to feel a very uncomfortable kind of “don’t know”. Many people feel confused by treatment options, possible effects, and their timeline. It is normal, understandable, and appropriate to suffer emotionally from this uncertainty.

You are, as your own #1 supporter, entitled and empowered to pursue answers from your doctor about your condition. Keep seeking information about how to improve your well-being (physical, emotional, spiritual, and all other domains). And yet, consider this reasonable and calm landing platform when it works for you: “I don’t know”.

To thine own self be true: you decide what areas of your life you “don’t know” and to what extent you decide to let go.

If you have an area in mind, perhaps consider making the statement softer: “I don’t know for today.”

One more breath, “I don’t know for right now.”

Will you find any peace in these words about the Five Invitations? Will you be true to yourself and care for yourself through this challenging time?

I don’t know. But… I sure hope so.

So it is with grief—it is a process.

This series was not about grieving end of life, though deaths (from the past, present, or anticipated future) might contribute to the grief. It was 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 series. I invite you to come back and re-read or re-listen. 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 now practices palliative medicine social work in Richmond, Virginia. 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. Thank you, Olga, for your work on this Grief Series. We deeply appreciate it, and you.

2 thoughts on “On Grief and Loss in Cancer: Part 6

  1. Olga, thank you for this series. You have given all of us so much to reflect on and incorporate as we move in grief.

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