As long as I have experienced success, I have shared and helped others in need. But in February 2009, it the midst of chemotherapy for a recent breast cancer diagnosis, a newly diagnosed potentially life threatening congenital heart defect and still days from the death of my mother, I was now the one in need. It didn’t seem to matter, though, that I was managing grief and waging my own fight against death of body and mind. The people who needed help didn’t hesitate to ask.
That first request was surreal. It was as if she didn’t notice my missing limb and blood pouring. The requests were nothing new, but honestly! Some people needed a little sensitivity training.
How many times had I held it in during my lifetime? How deeply was I falling victim again as other people’s needs overrode my need to catch my breath?
I had to find people who would understand. I had to learn to be honest about how I felt. I had to recognize that there was nothing wrong with me, and that whatever my feelings were, they were legitimate. I didn’t choose grief, but there it was with all of its pain and emotional turmoil. I had to go through it, and I was much healthier when I claimed my right to do it. It ended up being one of the most difficult—and important—things I had ever experienced, and not just for the obvious reasons.
Learning how to cope was crucial to getting through the difficult times. The ways I chose to cope shaped other important dimensions of my life, like how much meaning and satisfaction I found rather than with what kind of chronic problems I would contend. Facing the awful feelings increased my capacity to experience the feelings that make life worth living. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done, even when I had learned how.
I had not had many opportunities to practice using that coping skill before now. In fact, like most people, I had done just the opposite: I got over painful personal situations and didn’t let my feelings pester me or anyone else. Avoiding my feelings in my grief could have led me to medicate as so many do with drugs, alcohol, etc.
Instead, I developed a ritual to commemorate my mom’s passing, visiting her grave when I can take as much time as I need to express my anguish. In that one decision, I opened the door for learning to care for me.
Grieving was not really about handling losses at all, although the fact that it helped me to do that was a welcome bonus. Grieving was about handling myself when I was facing difficult situations. Each stage of the grieving process involved doing things I needed to do to provide myself with the same open, compassionate, and supportive response I provided to others when something bad happened to them.
For me, grief happened in intermingled stages and come and go behaviors, none of it right or wrong, none according to a prescribed timetable. Once I had been through it, I became pretty clear about when I’d go through it again and again. It wouldn’t take a major loss such as a death, serious illness, or loss of an important relationship or object to set the grieving process in motion. Any significant change could ignite the stages, including positive ones like having a child finish school and move out, getting a better job, reaching a weight loss goal, or suddenly realizing I wasn’t quite the same person I used to be. Every life change entailed a loss of what used to be (or what might have been), a transition into something new. I learned to recognize that strange position of grieving for something I wanted to change.
I emerged from my grief with the knowledge of a simple truth. My positive and negative feelings were one “package.” I couldn’t experience real joy if I couldn’t feel sorrow, nor could I find happiness if I was busy running from sadness. The amount of pleasure and meaning I got from my relationships was directly proportional to my capacity to feel the pain of loneliness. I could only know of the pride of my accomplishments if I endured the anxiety of taking risks or the shame of failing.
When Mom died, it was my turn to take the risk and feel that dagger in the heart. The philosopher Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That held very true for my grieving, but only when I let myself work with—not against—all the feelings and thoughts that came as a result.
As a doctor, I have seen people with chronic, life-threatening illnesses struggle with death and dying. I have also seen families struggle with the inevitable end of life, families who weren’t truly prepared for the avalanche of emotions that swept over them when the final moment came, even when they knew death was imminent. Then I knew how challenging and devastating the raw, intense emotions of grief could be, because it had happened to me. I had also experienced love in its capacity to lift burdens off the heart of humanity, turn duty into delight, and change even sorrow to joy.
As painful as my own grief was, it gave me new insight on dealing with theirs. I understood how grief clouded my ability to make sound decisions and consumed significant amounts of my energy. I learned not to make any major decisions during that time, such as moving, major financial changes, or relationships.
So many people kept telling me that things would get better in time, and to an extent, they were right. Time does help, but it might not cure. Time was able to make that acute, searing pain of loss less intense and to make my red-hot emotions less painful, but my feelings of loss and emptiness never completely went away. Expecting time to “fix it” created a false anticipation, which I should have taken with a measure of caution.
By the very nature of my work as a physician, I often had profound, moving, and sometimes disturbing experiences, but the most recent ones hit me like a ton of bricks. Those experiences have catalyzed my personal growth, but growth only occurred because I took the time to reflect on the experience, process its implications for my personal and professional development, and initiated behavior change. Reflection promoted a deeper understanding of myself and others.
Regardless of what side of the table I was on, patient’s or physician’s or both, I realized that my stressful situations had purpose. I believed that God was more interested in changing me than He was in changing my circumstances. He wanted me to get to the point where I was content, not disturbed or dissatisfied, regardless of my circumstance. When I was content, even if my circumstances changed, I didn’t spin out in distress, causing me to be distracted from living like Christ.
One day, the sun did shine again. I didn’t realize it at first. My days became brighter and my life went on, even though it would never be quite the same.