I’m a member of and active participant in a cancer support group. It has enriched my life and has helped me find peace in a maelstrom. This group has played a bigger part in my recovery than anything except surgery.
(A caveat about this post: I can not talk in specifics about anyone in my groups or about our conversations. I owe them confidentiality and anonymity.)
The odd thing about this experience is that I’m not much of a group person. I was in Brownies for about five minutes. I loved the uniform, but really hated being with all the others in the same uniform. I played basketball, but I hated the locker room.
I never feel like I fit in, and a support group forces the issue because you’re expected to participate. I’m used to being an outsider. It’s not so much that I like being an outlier. It’s that I am an outlier. I’m weird, to use my daughter’s words. I’m eclectic, to use my own. I’m a middle aged woman who’s a fan of Kanye West, an academic who watches reality television, an atheist who loves singing hymns.
Imagine my surprise when I joined this group and discovered two things: there are other weirdos and there are plenty of people who will reach out and scoop you in. These discoveries have saved my life.
These people have talked me back from the ledge. They have challenged me to learn to trust my doctors. They’ve helped me brainstorm solutions to insurance problems. They’ve offered compassion when I’ve been suffering. And they’ve listened to my blunt and unfocused words without cringing.
I’m still pretty sure that I’m an outlier, but I’m learning that all of us are outliers in some way. More important, I’ve found people who don’t give a damn if I’m weird or eclectic. Their support is unconditional.
There’s a price to pay for this unconditional support. It isn’t free.
Here’s how the poet Mary Oliver puts it,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
As I’ve been loved by these wonderful people, I’ve been learning how to love and support them. I’ve had to depend on them and to depend on their support. Dependence isn’t easy for me. Being the lone ranger is lonely, but I know the terrain. It’s familiar and predictable.
Instead of being inside my own head, I’ve had to articulate my fears and, then, have been challenged to give them up. If you want support, you have to be willing to accept support. If you bring a problem to the table, you have to be open to its being solved.
The hardest part is letting go when the time comes.
Letting go of problems and fears.
Letting go of anger and guilt.
Letting go of the people who have supported you and whom you have learned to love.
When you’re in a support group for people with cancer, not everyone makes it. Not everyone stays to support. Group leaders retire. People recover and their lives move on. People get sicker and don’t have the energy for the group. People enter hospice.
I haven’t yet experienced the death of one of my friends in the support group, but one of my friends is in hospice. The hum of fear and anxiety is in the background. Every now and then it breaks through and I see my friend’s face and think about her children.
When I first met her, at my first group meeting, I felt an immediate connection. Peace seemed to radiate from her. But she was also full of all the emotions familiar to me, anger and frustration, fear and worry.
Her presence and kindness. Her words of comfort and her own searching and worry. All of these offered me support. They were part of the bridge that carried me over last Fall.
The last time I saw her she seemed apologetic, as if she’d failed me somehow by choosing to be admitted to hospice.
She hasn’t failed me, of course. Instead, she is teaching me about letting go.
My heart has been heavy this week. Our group leader, the counselor who facilitates our group, is retiring at the end of the year. I’m having a hard time imagining our group without her. I’m having a hard time letting go.
My heart has also been heavy because I’ve been reading blogger Mary Tyler Mom’s September series about Childhood Cancer. These stories are about fear and suffering, pain and loss, surviving and dying, grief and struggle. Some are about joy and acceptance. If you haven’t read them, start doing so.
Maybe you wonder why I’d recommend that you read sad stories, that you open yourself up to stories about the most unimaginable and intolerable of all kinds of suffering, the suffering of children.
You should read these stories because they teach us about living in this world. When we listen to these stories, we can be part of the bridge that carries others over. When we listen to these stories, we can gain the courage to tell our own stories.
The price of a support group and the price of living in this world is that we must let go. But if we don’t love, there is really nothing to let go of.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Please read Mary Tyler Mom’s post about why awareness matters and how you can contribute.
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