It’s Grief… Isn’t It?
I’m of an age that has given me a reasonable amount of experience with grief. There have been big losses like loved ones passing and multiple miscarriages. There have been smaller losses like not getting that job I wanted or being outbid on a house. Or ridiculous losses like that pair of shoes I have wanted FOREVER finally going on sale so I can justify buying them and they only have a size 5 left. After all these years, I’m pretty familiar with the emotions that come with loss, can recognize when I’m having them and what they are associated with, and I feel comfortable letting that be okay.
But I gotta tell ya, this cancer business has had me stumped.
I mean, I didn’t lose my daughter, right? She went through treatment and came out of the other side NED (and if you read along with me you know I have to add a –T for today). And yet I have found myself experiencing the typical grief emotions for the last two and a half years over… and over… and over again. It’s not all the time everywhere I go. It sneaks up on me when I least expect it and most of the people in my life don’t get why I am feeling that way. And there are times when I’m on their side, asking myself why I seem to get to a certain point and then it’s like I reach the end of my bungie cord and I get whipped back into despair. I’ve been wracking my brain, doing research using all kinds of criteria and, just when I was about to give up, I stumbled upon a term that seems to fit.
Adrienne having cancer is an experience fed by the unknown, by the lack of certainty as to what comes next. It is open-ended and doesn’t give the opportunity to achieve closure because cancer is a never-ending story, and so it makes grieving really complicated. I acknowledge that grief is not linear, that it’s possible to shift back and forth along the continuum, but with a typical loss at least there is something I can attach it to, a specific event or point in time that can help me make sense of what I am feeling. I know, for example, that March 15th will always be a bad day for me because that’s the day I picked up the phone and heard my 27-year-old child say, “Mom, it’s cancer.” I have an explanation for my sleeplessness or disorganized thinking as that anniversary approaches and if I share that with others, they’ll get it. What is harder to pin down is the emotions surrounding the knowledge that while my daughter’s cancer is no longer present, it’s never going to be absent from her life, either. The tumor is gone, but the side effects of the treatment to get rid of it or one more scan or test to see if the cancer is back keep smacking her in the side of the head just when she feels like she can take a breath. I’m her Mom, and every time she is hit my heart breaks just a little bit more because it’s one more part of her freedom that has been lost to cancer. One more letting go of some of her old self. One more tick on the uncertainty of tomorrow list.
The term I found that fits all of this is called “Anticipatory Grief.” This type of grief leaves you lost in limbo because you are mourning something that hasn’t happened, or indeed may never happen, yet the emotional response has a profound impact on your now. A big challenge is that the people around me struggle to feel compassion because there is no singular event that they can relate my emotions to. Most of them think it’s negative thinking and that I should just wrap the experience up in a shiny ribbon because she made it. What they don’t understand is that I am grieving the loss of a future that may not come for her, or when it does it will be very different than what I hoped it would be. I get up, I go to work, I share amazing moments with my family and while I am doing all that I am grieving what cancer may still take from her, and from me.
We talk about her future. She is working very hard to believe that she has one. I am, too. I wish with all my being that the piece of me that always stays just a hair away from the discussion could join in with abandon. That I could shine a light into that dark corner of my mind that is born of the not knowing, that hosts the protection I must provide for myself as I try so desperately to part the curtains and see what is to come so I can be ready. Of course, we all walk around knowing we could be hit by a bus, but if the bus already clipped you your reality takes a sharp turn to the left. I genuinely want to close the book and walk with confidence into our tomorrow, but it seems like the anticipatory grief just won’t let me get there.
I bet you I could do it if I’d been able to by those damn shoes in my size.
Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure. When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed! Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.