I will never forget the phone call that informed me of my brother's cancer - a cancer that both he and our family were told would likely kill him within a week or two. The adrenal dump inside my body at the moment of hearing those words is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. Fortunately, my brother ended up being with us for another two years after this diagnosis, but no loss or grief or trauma I had ever encountered prior to this, including sexual assault, miscarriage, the loss of a dear friend and favorite medical practitioner, and the loss of my father a little over a year after we found out about my brother's cancer, could have prepared me for this one. My despair and grief were the source of a huge amount of my ‘survival writing,’ and I even sought out professional help for the first and only time in my life because of what I recognized as the real warning signs of depression.
Barely over one year later, I lost my mother unexpectedly. She was my friend, my cheerleader, my champion, my inspiration, my role model, my first greatest love. It was a crushing blow, but with the help of a lot of nature therapy, a very supportive husband, and a lot of writing, meditation, prayer, and self-reflection, I came to see how much every single thing that I had endured prior to each loss had prepared me for the next difficult challenge or loss. EVERY SINGLE TIME!
Fast forward to today. I have a dear friend who has a friend with a terminal illness that may take him from this world sooner rather than later. She is struggling -immensely- with how to navigate this kind of ‘we know it’s coming but don’t know how much longer he will have’ kind of loss; with how to deal with the overwhelming and drowning emotions that come from knowing you are going to lose someone you simply cannot imagine your life without.
Because I have had my fair share of experience with grief, and especially the experience of my brother dying from cancer, she reached out to me asking for my guidance with questions like "Where do I start?" and "How do I do this?" and “I didn’t know tears could just keep falling out of my head everywhere” like this. In my attempt to find the words to comfort her while also preparing her for what I thought might be in store for her, what poured from me ended up coming out like a list. Immediately after sending it to her, I found myself thinking, “I should share this.” She wrote back after reading what I sent her and said, “I think this should be shared…” If there is one thing I've learned in these last several years, it's to listen to the signs, whether that's my own intuition (God) whispering to me, or a human angel placed in my path with a special message. So this is me sharing because I have the inside scoop ;) that someone needs to read exactly what I'm about to say.
As is often the case with so many scary and unwanted things in life, we tend to want to shove them as far as possible into the background of existence in a desperate attempt to pretend they don’t exist, to remain in denial, or to hope they go away. I sooooooo understand this early stage of grief when you know something bad is going to happen but you keep wanting to pretend that it won’t actually happen. Maybe a miracle will occur. Maybe it’s not as bad as they say. Maybe he’ll/she'll be one of the lucky ones and live a lot longer than 'they' think. Maybe God will spare him/her. Etc.. What I went through with my brother I wasn't sure I would survive, and there were times I honestly didn't know if I wanted to. And the tears that just kept coming, and the waking up from sleep sobbing, and the anger, and the denial, and the praying...Oh my gosh, the praying…the making of deals with God…the sudden realization that you should have put more conscious effort into daily prayer long before this came to pass…maybe then you’d be in better standing with the 'man upstairs.' Maybe then He would listen and spare your loved one. I even asked God to take me instead. I did. I get it. I had all the thoughts. All of them!
But this I also know. When it comes your turn to grieve, your journey will be different than mine. Yes, there are stages, and, yes, you may progress faster or slower through some stages than someone else, but know the stages aren't tidy and easily defined, and there is no right or wrong way to navigate your way through them. And some stages you will walk through but end up returning to. You just keep walking through them until one day you realize you've reached another place in terms of how you are dealing with your grief, and from there the journey continues to the next stage, and the next.
Also, know there is something in your journey you must learn...something meant for only you, and only you can walk through all the heart wrenching steps to figure out what that is. It will not be easy. It will be filled with incredibly difficult moments and likely a lot of conflict and despair, and you will cling to hope in a new way, and you will find strength you didn't know you had, and you will realize that the hardships you had earlier in life each laid a foundational piece in preparing you for this. This is how life works, and you will come to understand this in a way you couldn’t have understood prior to what is happening. Knowing it doesn't make it easier, and it doesn't lessen any of the hard emotions you have to traverse, but in some inexplicable, connected, amazing way, it is beautiful. And when you allow yourself to feel it ALL -every bit of it- you will at some point on down the road come out on the other side reborn and filled with a new sense of deep gratitude...gratitude for what you learned, gratitude for the gift of life, and gratitude for Love.
Here is what I can advise when you are facing the kind of grief I faced, and my friend is now facing:
First, write your way through your feelings. Write as often as you can…even if you don’t currently write…even if you don’t see yourself as a writer…even if no one will ever see what you have written. Just write to get your feelings out – to release what feels trapped inside…to give realness to your pain, to give your anger, fear, and despair to God, to the heavens, to the universe.
Second, cry, cry, cry. Cry so much that you think you will dehydrate yourself from the loss of your tears, because the tears will remind you of just how hard you love, and there is a peculiar kind of comfort in allowing yourself to realize this. Don't ever hold back your tears.
Third, know that you WILL find the strength to be there for your loved one who is dying, but also prepare yourself for the possibility that they may pull away from you for lots of different reasons as they struggle with their own journey through the stages of grief and into acceptance. Try not to take anything personally. Take your cues from your loved one. Talk when they feel like talking. Sit quietly when they don’t. Touch when they will allow you to. Walk away when they want to be alone. Allow them to vent their anger without feeling the need to have the answers. Often there is nothing you can say to make it better, but just your presence and your physical touch can say what your words cannot. You do not need to the fill empty spaces with words. Love does not need words. Quiet and touch (or merely presence) can often bring the comfort and peace that words cannot.
Forth, when you need to, allow yourself to hope that it isn't true, that it won't be the worst case scenario, that he/she will be one of the lucky ones and live longer, that it is all just a bad dream. Because clinging to moments of hope is what gets us through the really hard days. And there isn’t anything wrong with wishing, dreaming, fantasizing, and hoping when we need an escape, when we feel we are drowning, and especially when hope is all we feel we have left. This in and of itself is a stage in the grieving process and will help you to reach the next one.
Fifth, be really kind to yourself and give to yourself what you need when you need it. Don't feel guilty when you can't seem to manage to do anything but sleep or watch TV or eat everything in sight. Don't question the seeming irrationality of anything you feel...it's ALL normal!!! Try to get out into nature as much as you can. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself when you are in any kind of pain. While I was in the throes of some of my darkest moments, I found profound compassion, comfort, clarity, and divinity every time I immersed myself in the beauty of the natural world. I go so far as to tell others that every answer they seek they can find in the arms of Mother Nature. ‘Be still and know I am God.’ Seriously, do it!
Sixth, prepare yourself for questioning any and everything about your life and who you are and what you do. For some reason grief does this to us. We start questioning our feelings, our other relationships, our worth, our life choices, our own mortality, our beliefs, God, and love as a whole. We can start to question if we know anything, what we are here for, and if there is even any value in our existence. In hindsight, I now believe that this is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful things about the journey that is grief - the perspective and enlightenment you gain. But, man, this part can be rough. It can hang on a while. And survivor guilt is a very real thing too. Try to embrace the feelings as they come, knowing they are a normal part of the process and a normal part of reaching acceptance, but also for discovering what you are meant to learn. Remember, there is always something you are meant to learn! I did a lot of self-talking myself through the most difficult times, almost as though I was having a dual between the good and bad parts of myself, trying to assure myself that the good would win. This is where writing can also be helpful.
Seventh, try to find time each day to sit in gratitude...to search for whatever little glimmer of blessing you can find in that day, no matter how awful the day is. Because the harder you look for the blessings, the more you will find them (I promise!), the more you will realize you aren't alone (we are all interconnected!), and the more you will come to realize that everything -absolutely everything- is happening exactly as it's meant to, for each of us, and for our evolution to our highest self. There is divine guidance at play behind the scenes through EVERYTHING. Look for the blessings. See divinity at work. The signs are everywhere around you, even when you are at your lowest of lows.
And, finally, rely on your friends. Your dearest friends will want to be there for you, but may not know how to be. Be honest with them. Ask for help when you need it. Reach out when you are lonely, struggling, fearful, drowning in sadness, or just want to talk, whether it's about your struggle or about anything but. Sometimes just bouncing your thoughts and emotions off a friend can provide such a profound sense of relief. Let go of the martyr inside who thinks for some irrational reason that you should be able to navigate grief without help. Stop the self-critical talk that whispers to you about all your weaknesses. We weren’t meant to do these hard things entirely on our own! And you absolutely can do what there will be times you think you cannot, even when you question over and over and over if you can. Your friends are there to remind you of that! Lean on them.
I love you. I understand. You can do what you may think you cannot.
All the best,