How Grief Can Resurface With a Second Loved One Facing Cancer
The day before my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, my father, Bill, broke his arm. What may seem like a simple, common injury, was not for my “larger than life” dad. For him, a broken arm was the beginning of an almost four year battle with multiple myeloma. My father fought through chemo, radiation, platelet infusions and even a stem-cell transplant. Devastatingly, we lost my dad on April 4, 2012.
Our family trudged through our first holiday without our patriarch only four days after my dad died. One of my nephews had his first-communion only weeks later. There was an empty chair at my oldest nephew’s high school graduation where my father should have been sitting, proud of his oldest grandson preparing to head off to college on a Division 1 golf scholarship. One of the biggest reminders he was gone, for me anyway, came in July of 2014 when I gave birth to my first child, Bill’s fifth grandson. I named him William, after his Grankie, the man he would never get to meet. The man who would have given him sweets after I said no. The man who would have let him have cake for breakfast during camping trips in the big RV. The man who would have loved him with a strength that moved heaven and earth.
You find a way to deal with the reminders. They don’t hurt less, but they become part of your new normal. It’s little things that hit you in ways you can’t explain. Sometimes, you’re walloped with grief and it sends you reeling backward so hard, you feel your breath escape your lungs and your stomach turn up in knots.
Hearing your 43-year-old brother say the words, “I have cancer,” can shake you to your still fractured, still healing core.
There was a certain ignorance I had when my father was diagnosed. First of all, I’d never even heard of multiple myeloma. It wasn’t bone cancer or leukemia or any other kind I had a passing familiarity with. Second, this was the first time my family had to navigate such a diagnosis. We had known people with cancer before, but they were friends or relatives that didn’t live nearby. While everyone is aware of how deadly cancer can be, I had never seen the effects up close and personal, and I don’t think it’s possible to understand them until you’ve watched a loved one deal with the constant sickness and pain that comes with the disease and its treatment. My father never let his family know how sick he truly was or what the doctors were telling him in terms of how his cancer was advancing, or how grim his prognosis had become. We thought he had a good chance of survivial and his decline took us all by surprise. His death came quickly after we learned the truth.
With a second loved one’s diagnosis, there is no ignorance. You are incredibly aware of the possibilities, sometimes so aware that all the possible “what ifs?” hit you so hard you feel bruised.
Fortunately (ironic using that word in relation to having cancer), my brother’s prognosis is good. We live in an area with amazing medical care that includes top hospitals in the country. People come from all over to seek help and we only have to drive 45 minutes. The oncologist believes my brother can avoid surgery, and chemo and radiation can get him cancer free. Treatment is going to be rough, though, and all the side-effects are to be expected: hair loss, nausea, feeding tube, etc. But in the long run, those will go away, and hopefully so will the cancer.
My brother is having lasers pointed at his face and medicine after medicine pumped into his system. The man who taught him to be strong, the man who could commiserate with his situation is gone. I cannot imagine what it must be like for my brother, going into treatment every single day, being told he has an amazing chance to be cancer free, and wonder why this wasn’t possible for our father.
Despite the optimism and strength of my brother and family, there are moments when the weight of my thoughts seems crushing. Even in the moments when I am not fearful for my brother, the grief for my father feels fresh and new. Even when I am positive my brother will kick cancer’s ass, I am reminded our father is gone. I am reminded my family is going through this again. Cancer took my father, and now it threatens to come for my brother. And while I am confident my brother and his medical team have a good chance, the memories of five years ago keep resurfacing, and I have to try with everything I have to push them back down.
Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s brother.
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