Since I’ve been relocated to the cancer community, I’ve had more encounters with grief than I imagined were possible. This is what I’ve learned: Grief is a journey. It isn’t a process. It doesn’t have stages. And, there is no “normal” way to grieve.
In some part of my brain, I must have known that as you get older, you necessarily encounter more loss. You just have more opportunities to do so. Aging, eventually, leads you and all of your contemporaries to the end of life. It’s just that way.
But, I didn’t expect to lose five friends in less than a calendar year. I didn’t imagine meeting so many people who had lost children and spouses or who had been diagnosed with metastatic cancers.
Death and its intimate neighbor, grief, have no mercy and offer no dignity. A cancer diagnosis opens the door to ugly. Ugly emotions. Ugly sights. Ugly choices. The grief left in its wake is no prettier.
I’ve been following a thread about grief on my online support group for people with bladder cancer. Most of those writing and responding are surviving spouses of people who have died. Two themes seem to emerge in their comments: they wonder if their grief is normal and they are isolated from friends who are exhausted by their grief.
In fact, these go hand in hand. When people pull back from us, it seems natural to wonder if we’re behaving normally. What is normal when we’re talking about grief?
That question leads me back to my local support group, which in the last 10 months has lost five active members to cancer. On a well-attended evening there might be 10 or 12 of us, so five deaths packs a punch.
It has become very difficult to go to the group because we dread the news that awaits us. In fact, several folks have stopped coming altogether.
It’s hard, excruciating, to know that someone you knew, someone who helped carry you through hard times has died, in some cases from the same type of cancer that you have.
Guilt and sadness compete for attention. It is sometimes just too hard to keep showing up. Some of us do, however, keep showing up. I think all of us feel like we owe it to each other.
Some of us are in remission, showing every sign of being cancer free. But others among us are treading water, maintaining, hanging in there.
As I watch and listen, feel and talk, I realize that loss and grief are very complex. They are not not processes with stages despite the claims of its most famous analyst, Elisabeth Kübler Ross.
Ross argued that grief was universal and had five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She suggests that the “stages” don’t have to come in order, that many never reach “acceptance,” and that people sometimes become stuck in one stage or another.
We can certainly take helpful insights from Ross. My problem is that she calls them stages of a universal process, a view that imagines grief and loss and the human psyche within a mechanical model.
Mechanically speaking, a process is made up of stages that come in a particular order if the machine is to work correctly. Mechanical systems are finite, created by human beings to accomplish specific goals.
Seeing grief within this frame creates a norm. Instead of describing what does happen, it prescribes what should happen.
When it comes to the complex, chaotic experience of grief, I don’t believe in “shoulds” or ideals. It may be true that Ross never intended her work to be used as a user manual, but it has inflicted on many of us a set of instructions that is impossible to follow.
Loss and the ensuing grief are burden enough without the voices around us telling us to “move on.” Truth is, I think most people have a limited ability to listen to and be present for others’ grief unless they have suffered a profound loss.
Even then, I’m afraid that we have a tendency to impose our experiences on others. After my mom died, I struggled mightily with my father’s interest in dating within a few months.
I was grateful to stumble over a piece of research that described men’s and women’s behavior after losing a spouse as opposites of each other. Happily married women who lose husbands tend to wait many years before establishing new relationships. Happily married men tend to establish new relationships very quickly.
We are complex we human beings. Some of us live through parts of lives in the way textbooks describe. Others of us make new roads, get stuck in the mud, and end up visiting places we’d never imagine.
I’m always grateful for a map that shows me how to get to a particular place. I often follow directions very well. But sometimes, whether there’s a map or not, I just need to drive around the countryside and discover the lay of the land on my own.
It’s lonely work sometimes. It’s confusing and chaotic. I’ve ended up in a ditch more than once. And, I’ve been so lucky to meet fellow travelers willing to help pull me out.
People who grieve need patience and acceptance. Some of us need extra help through support groups and counseling. We really don’t need anyone to tell us how to do it right. There really is no normal.
Grief is a journey, and we need to help people travel in their own way.
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