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The Parallels I've Found Between Grief and Other Chronic Health Conditions

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I was listening to a radio interview a while ago. The woman being interviewed was speaking about guilt and grief, and it took me a few minutes to realize she was recounting her experience with cancer. As I listened, more and more of what she said resonated with my own experience with grief. There appeared to be many striking similarities between the anguish that comes from the loss of a child and this dreaded disease. I began to relate this to some of the things I have been experiencing these past two years.

Like cancer, a tragedy of this magnitude doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone, at any time, without warning or precursor. We can get help, support from friends and family, groups, grief counselors, books, blogs, but ultimately, it is our own journey. Everyone reacts differently and can take longer or shorter to come to grips with it. Each of us has to figure it out for ourselves. Nevertheless, I’ve found there are some universal truths here, somewhere, that may apply to any sudden, unexpected chronic condition.

Guilt. Oh, my. How many times have I questioned my actions surrounding my son Jake’s death? As with many conditions, I’m sure, the questions pile up. Is there something I could have done or shouldn’t have done to prevent this? Was it something I did or didn’t do? Should I have done more as a parent, done less, taught him better, left him alone? There are a thousand and one questions I ask myself daily. The answer is probably no. Each of us has done what we have done. Questioning the past cannot change it. In my mind I know “it’s not my fault,” but in my heart I will always question that.

Strength and bravery. We are told to “be strong,” “be brave” and “it gets better with time.” I have had many people tell me I am both strong and brave. Frankly, I don’t feel very strong. Or brave. To the contrary, I feel immensely fragile and weak. I can break down at any time. I have to fight to get out of bed sometimes. I am exhausted all the time. Just like a chronic disease, we have to learn to manage our grief, our chronic sorrow. It can be a lifelong task.

Others’ reactions. What are you supposed to say to a cancer patient? What do you say to a grieving parent? How do you act? What can you do? I feel the worst thing someone can say is “I know how you feel. My friend’s father/mother/uncle/dog died and they…” There is no comparison, and frankly, I am not in competition with anyone else’s sorrow. We can share our stories and let each other know we are not alone in our grief — that we understand, no matter what the other person says or does in their mourning. We can help with the day-to-day tasks of living, bring a meal, offer to clean their house, drive them somewhere. Quiet, non-judgmental support. That’s about all, but that is often exactly enough.

Our expectations. How should we feel? What should we do? That is a question each of us has to answer. Should I bravely soldier on, or can I just stay in bed and pull the covers over my head? What is right? We can expect to feel like sh*t — to look like sh*t sometimes. This is uncharted territory, and however we behave, that’s how we should behave. There is no schedule, no right or wrong. No one who is in our fellowship of bereavement would find fault with whatever we do, with however we are. Those outside may, but they have no currency in this strange land.

Surviving. People often speak of cancer “survivors.” Those who have lost loved ones are spoken of as surviving. “So-and-so is survived by…” I think “survivor” is a gross misnomer. The implication is that the event is over and you made it. This event is never over. You don’t “survive” grief; just like any chronic illness, you learn how to manage it. I can relapse at any time, without warning.

We have to find our own way through this morass of emotion, this incurable affliction. We depend on the kindness of friends, family, and yes, of strangers. We have to live our lives as best we can, finding what meaning we can. In spite of it all, life goes on. The sun will rise tomorrow, and so will you. And so will I.

man with black cat on his lap
Ed’s son Jake and cat Lola.

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Originally published: April 12, 2016
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