Adrift at Sea
Unfortunately, grief as a concept is nothing new to me. I had a series of losses growing up that informed my passion for counselling and helping people find their resiliency in loss. Any type of loss – a person, a job, a marriage, a friendship, an identity. This last one is important in my understanding of working with young women who have breast cancer. There are many losses and shifts in identity like becoming a patient and the loss of innocence when it comes to your mortality. Then there are the deaths that come with being part of a community of other women with breast cancer. The grief is real and it’s consuming, so where and how do you begin to overcome it and navigate these unchartered waters?
I lost my best friend to cancer almost three months ago and I have gone adrift with my grief. For the most part I am functioning well: working, parenting, socializing, sleeping (enough), and exercising (not so much). But I am carrying this weight…it’s heavy and with me all the time. It colours my world and experiences through a dull filter. And it makes me feel alone sometimes. A friend of mine summed it up perfectly – “It’s like being in the same ocean as other people but in your own boat.” I would add with an unwanted passenger.
So I am going back to the basics, exploring grief’s messy stages and other ways of reorienting myself to a world without the person I’ve lost and loved. I’m hoping to shed some light on a topic that so many of us experience but struggle to find commonality and meaning in. Over the next few months I will share my voyage with you as I try to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and hopefully offer some suggestions and strategies as I uncover them for myself.
An unwanted early intro to my passenger
I think many of us see grief as a means to a physical end. It is what happens to our minds and bodies when we long for someone or something of the past. For some of us this process happens in expectation of the loss whether we like it or not. This is called anticipatory grief and it’s very real.
I had been grieving the loss of my best friend, for several months before she died. I am not sure if this is because I know what death looks like, or because I knew what was in store (let’s be honest, befriending anyone with cancer makes you vulnerable to experiencing the pain of loss.) Grief showed up in insidious ways and became the third wheel in our friendship for the last few months. It was in the awkward silence we shared when I would talk about planning my son’s Bar Mitzvah, the jokes we made about who she might meet in the afterlife, the tears we quietly shed on the flight home from NYC in December knowing it was her last, her birthday dinner when we partied into the night and her last mother’s day when I felt compelled to tell her that she was my hero. The mother I hoped to be one day.
There was no escaping this early intro to my passenger and it took everything I had to stifle it when we were together. This might seem counter intuitive because everything you read about grief tells you to face it head on and make space for it or it will eat you alive. But it has no place when you are holding space for a sick friend and her family or when you just want to be present in your last moments together, and not consumed by the dread of it all coming to an end.
Paying attention to this new passenger and pushing it away when it had no business being there was challenging to say the least. I employed all of the self-care tools I had, read books about death, cried into my pillow at night and talked feverishly with others who had a sick best friend or lost one. Those few women were a lifeline. All that to say, I never came undone because that is a luxury we don’t have when we are supporting someone who is dying. When we do become unhinged after the person dies, it is not any easier.
This was a surprising revelation for me as someone who thinks they are on top of their mental health (aka acknowledging and dealing with anticipatory grief). The truth is nothing prepares you for the pain, loneliness, disbelief and anger that ensues. Instead, we get to know our passenger and have no choice but to make friends with them whether we like it or not.