I have not wanted my blog to become an all-pink, breast cancer blog, so I have purposefully not posted since my last commentary. Unfortunately, my life can’t help but be all about my cancer right now. It has been hard to think of topics outside of “the thing” that has taken over the life of my whole family. But yesterday, a fellow student at Denver Seminary, asked me a question that I have been pushing away and that I now face. She asked me if I had mourned the loss of my breasts. I told her that quite honestly, I don’t have time to mourn…..my breasts…..or the loss of my father that occurred just a few weeks ago….I am busy trying to graduate from seminary. I work at a job and I have a family. I will have time after December 12th. However since she asked, I can’t stop thinking about her question. The grief is something not specific to, but a huge part of what I am going through. It is so important, as a therapist, to address how loss takes a toll on all of us.
I found out that my Dad went to Heaven an hour before I had to take my comprehensive exams for a program I have been in for over 4 years. I am 47 years old and can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, yet I had to regenerate Counseling theories, stages of physical, mental, spiritual development and racial identity, and prove that I am competent to diagnose according to a book so big…..I truly give God all the glory that I passed. I am lucky to have a spouse who drove me to the testing location and literally propped me in a seat and retrieved me hours later, because he knew how important it was that I put this degree to rest.
I wrote for three hours straight that morning and forgot that my compromised lymphatic system might not like that I used my right arm without some external support. My physical therapist got to work out the inflammation a few days later and I now have a sleeve coming in the mail from lymphadivas.com, in a cute animal print. Another loss of what used to be normal in my life. I am sad that now every time I fly or overwork my right arm, I will have to wear a compression sleeve that announces to the world that I am less than healthy. Of course, that might be better than the doctor’s note I have had to travel with the past couple months, because TSA might think that the metal ports inside my tissue expanders are a bomb….
Mourning losses is important. If you are human, you have experienced loss. You have lost a job, a pet, a special someone, a friend, a home, a child, an opportunity. You can mentally add your personal losses to this list, I am sure. Sometimes the feelings associated with loss overwhelm us or are triggered by another event. I have been mourning the loss of my mother for eleven years and that loss is only accentuated now that my father is gone too. It is not that the loss consumes me daily, rather waves of grief overcome me at times when I expect and least expect it. We are not always able to push grief away or control grief’s impact on our life.
For some, grief can be experienced over the what-I-had-hoped-for. When I work with those recently divorced, the grief surrounding the what-I-had-hoped-for can be so painful. We know when we marry, that death is a possibility, but no one plans, ahead of the walk down the aisle, to grieve the loss of their spouse through divorce. They do not plan for the grief around being abandoned, or the awkwardness when one remarries, or their children launching with families of their own that have to be shared at holidays, or grief surrounding the possibility they wasted the best years of their life on a relationship that did not survive.
The thing is that life does not stop for us to mourn. We still have to work, go to school, do our laundry and go to the dentist. We have to resolve to take the time and allow the grief in. We have to be willing to cycle through difficult emotions that range from disbelief to sadness, from relief to desperation, to eventually hopefulness. We have to allow for new normals that feel awkward at first but may not feel as devastating down the road. But mourn, we must, or we will be taken by surprise when our defenses are down, by a rush of emotion associated with a deep feeling of “what just happened?”
A few months ago I had my first real panic attack. I have treated people who suffer from panic attacks but had never experienced that feeling that I could not catch my breath because I was overwhelmed by the strangeness of my life experience. Cancer has changed that for me. Now, I can say that I have sat on the floor, head between my knees, not sure if I was going to pass out because my new normal was not something I had planned for. I was not prepared, at my age, to fight for my sexuality and confidence in my attractiveness. I was not prepared to wonder if my season of remission will be long or short. There is a seriousness that may never go away completely, even though as a family we try to apply humor to our new normal as much as we can.
We are tracking the days until my reconstruction with a dry erase marker on a plate we have propped up in our kitchen. There are 5 more days until the “yes-they-are-fake-the-real-ones-tried-to-kill-me” surgery. And no, I have not yet mourned the loss. Well meaning friends have tried to encourage me with, “at least you get free perky boobs!” It is difficult to explain that I have lost a piece of me. I have lost my plan to age gracefully without plastic surgery, as my commitment to feminism. I will never again have sensation across my chest or in part of my arm. The physical, emotional and financial cost is more than you can imagine, if you haven’t been through it. I realize, as I experience the loss of a parent simultaneously, that loss has that in common, no matter the loss. The loss has a multitude of layers and you never experience the world or feel the same again.
Yet, there is hope, even in loss. It is the reason that victims of trauma and disaster can rise to new heights after life altering events. This is what I hope to impart to my clients. Life is hard for all of us. We all experience tragedy as a result of our own mistakes, as a result of spiritual battling and because humanity is fallen. It is what we do in the midst of loss, that determines if it is what keeps us down or propels us to new heights. I have learned in the last few months that I truly can do all things with Christ in my life, a family that believes in me, and friends who stand by. I might never have known this to the degree that I do, if I had not experienced the complicated grief that life has given to me at this time.