Grief and loss


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It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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I am reading Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book at the moment, Man’s Search For Meaning. Heavy reading? I guess it is, in one way. But I am so inspired by people’s stories that speak of greatness. Because they can teach us so much, can’t they. This book is Dr Frankl’s autobiographical account of his imprisonment during World War II. And he talks about how life in a concentration camp could be called a ‘provisional existence’. With no known end date to their imprisonment, some prisoners were unable to hold on to future goals. They simply stopped living for the future. And without a future and without a goal, the decay set in. In mind and body. And what struck me is how similar this experience can be to the experience of cancer. Because sometimes it feels like there is no end, doesn’t it. Treading water. An uncertain future. Life on hold.

I woke the other night thinking about how hard it can be to keep living with a dark shadow hanging overhead. And there are days it can be tough, I know. In the struggle to survive, Dr Frankl describes how  easy it became to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, ‘opportunities which really did exist’. Pretty amazing, huh! That the horror of a concentration camp could secretly hold opportunities for something better. But it happens all the time, doesn’t it. Strangely, it seems that in these most difficult of circumstances, we often find the opportunity to grow. Because it’s only when things are tough that we can realise how strong we really are, isn’t it. The difficult stuff gives us the chance to develop our inner strength. And that is an incredible feeling, isn’t it. To know how strong and capable we really are. It dawned on me we’d be a bunch of wusses if life were always easy.

So thank God, they finally say ‘living with cancer’. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. Living. Living with a challenge, yes. But living all the same. And it seems that when we acknowledge and accept the possibilities – all of them – and remind ourselves that we are okay, right here, right now, it somehow frees us to truly keep on living. And it’s important to keep living, isn’t it. To resist the urge to put life on hold ‘for next year’. Because this is the only life we’ve got. And it’s only when we define this as ‘bad’ that we run the risk of putting our life on hold. Because if we step back and look from another angle, it just may be that the experience of cancer can be a wake up call to do something different for ourselves. To finally give ourselves permission to do those things we have always wanted to do. To live for ourselves for a time, rather than for others. To heal our lives. An opportunity to do something special for ourselves, just for us…

I wonder, have you ever noticed how we are surrounded by mirrors in our lives? Some are a true and clear reflection. While others are more like the foggy ones when you get out of the shower. Or the mirrors with a crack in the glass. You only see a snippet of yourself. A distorted image and not your true reflection. And then there are others like the ones at the fun park or the museum, where your body is stretched tall and thin, or shrunk short and stumpy. And we laugh at these mirrors, don’t we, because we know they are not a true reflection of who we really are. Safe in the knowledge the real us, the true us remains unchanged.

My husband became a true mirror for me the other day. As I took my shirt off, he whistled. You know, one of those appreciative wolf whistles. I could never work out why they have been rendered politically incorrect. They never offended me. In fact, I love them. And they make me feel good about myself. It feels good to be appreciated, doesn’t it. This one took me completely by surprise and I smiled with delight. Because I felt so unconditionally loved in this moment. I find him amazing. He doesn’t see the scars. He only sees me. In the days following I realised at an even deeper level that it is ‘me’ that is attractive to him, the real me inside. The outside bits, although desirable, are not as important. And in reflecting this back to me, he is teaching me to see myself this way. He became a mirror for me of what really matters. A true mirror. And I love him all the more.

The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes”, I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it he says, it’s kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in.

Richard Selzer – Lessons from the Art of Surgery as quoted in Love, Medicine and Miracles by Dr Bernie Siegel

Sometimes it helps me to remember that cancer is really only a cracked mirror. Just a snapshot of a moment in time. Because it’s not a true reflection of who we really are, is it. And it can be comforting to remember that no matter what happens, our real self, our true self will always remain safely tucked away inside…

I did something really dumb this morning. Like every good working mum on school holidays I was multi-tasking big time. And by the time I had the kids in the car, I was of course running a little behind schedule. As is my custom, I turned the engine on to warm up three freezing kids. An overnight temperature of minus five or thereabouts. The windscreen was frosty. So heavily frosted that the windscreen wipers weren’t making any progress. And so I began to move the car into the sun to help it along. We live on a farm and the drive is huge so I have a lot of room to turn around. Only trouble was I’d parked in the opposite direction the night before. And so as I turned the car slowly, winding down the window so I could see, with the windscreen wipers working furiously, I was effectively driving blind. No big problem when I’m facing the other way. The bump and the breaking of glass alerted me to my grave misjudgement as I hit the low brick wall. No speed, but enough to smash the fog light and break the bumper. Bugger. A small expletive. I got back in the car after examining the damage and smiled at the kids. After all, what could I do except get over it. If only I’d been a bit more patient, I’ll remember this for next time.

And then it dawned on me. Another of those wonderful aha moments. With reconstruction imminent, I suddenly felt like the car was an extension of me. Easily repaired, no harm done. On the other side of cancer, I realised I now have a different perspective. And I laughed. It seems the fear and sadness is done.

Surreal. That’s how it felt the day I found out I had cancer. And even though it was expected, a sort of dreamlike state seemed to envelop me as my doctor uttered those dreaded words. I guess that’s what shock feels like. Detached. Not quite real. I was stoic as I left, but collapsed into despair in the car. My husband, Steve, wanted to scream. I remember we drove to see a friend, who calmed me down a little with his words and his confidence that I would heal. I remember sitting in the park watching my children play, thinking it’s not every day you get diagnosed with cancer. I remember taking my kids out for dinner that night and looking around at the other families, thinking to myself, they have no idea of what’s just happened. Nothing seemed real.

And as the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, I found the fear and indecision took hold. What best to do? Everyone had a different opinion. Would I live or would I die? Would I survive the treatment let alone the cancer? I felt lost. And there were those days that it all became too much, and I’d scream or cry inconsolably at the injustice of it all and the thought of having my breast cut off. I was fortunate at those times to have my friends who would calm me with their words. Helping me to find some inner peace amidst the chaos and pain through their impromptu relaxations. I wasn’t good at meditating. Too hard to calm myself with all the stress inside my head. I was so grateful they were there to guide me, to carry me when I needed it most.

After I had healed I thanked them for the love they had shown in my darkest times. ‘Pay it forward’ said Peter. And so this is so much a part of what I do. Sharing with others the tools that helped me.

And their words of comfort? I bottled them so to speak. Today I recorded a guided relaxation to help people cope with the distress of diagnosis. Any diagnosis. Any difficult news really. Just as I was helped. And I’ve called it A Safe Place.

Because there’s no where to hide when you get the diagnosis, is there? There isn’t much on offer when you hear that news? You’re kind of left to your own devices, leaving the doctor’s office in a sort of daze. And there is no going back.  No turning back of time. The only path is forward. And it can be difficult to know what to do.

And I feel good about this relaxation. Knowing the path, it’s my way of helping people through the madness that seems to descend with those dreaded words. Anywhere, anytime feelings of overwhelm set in. To help counteract those feelings of being disconnected as people seem to talk at you. And you’re not really there. Not quite taking it all in. Not quite sure what to do.

It is my hope that in time the hospitals will embrace this CD. Offer it in the chemo suites to calm and relax people while the chemo is going in. And in calming people it may even help to reduce the side effects. A big call I know, but I know the value of this work. I’m fortunate to have lived it first-hand. Because I know that even when the pain is great, you can always find a safe place within yourself. A place of peace and calm which can give you the strength to get through. A place where you can feel safe as you leave the world and it’s worries behind…

Looking back I am amused by people’s perceptions. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I walked around for a couple of months with a tumour inside of me, while I processed the shock and worked out what was best for me. I didn’t tell many people and so, even though I had an active cancer, nobody treated me any differently. After all, I looked the same, didn’t I. And so it strikes me as funny that once the cancer had been removed, and I began chemo as an insurance policy against it ever returning, people then thought of me as a person with cancer. Simply because I had no hair. The stereotypical sign of cancer. And I smile, because in fact, it was actually the other way round.

Our perceptions are interesting, aren’t they. How many times have we thought that something was one way, only to realise later it was something else? I gave my daughter a beautiful book called Duck! Rabbit!.

Throughout this gorgeous book there’s a debate about whether or not the drawing is in fact a duck or a rabbit. And it really could be either. I love it, because it causes the reader to stretch the way they think about things. To challenge our perceptions, to question and explore new ways of thinking, other possibilities. Because, like a lot of parents, I want to open up the possibilities life holds for my children. And this begins with them, doesn’t it. Helping them to develop their own way of thinking and not just automatically buy into what every body else thinks is real, or right or true. What delights me most is that the benefit is not just for my children.

Because there are always two sides to every coin, aren’t there. And when one lands in our lap, I think we can sometimes forget to flip it over. To take a look at what the other side has to offer. And although there were many times throughout my experience I wondered if this was the end, looking back I now realise that it was just the beginning. An opportunity, a chance in life, to do something very special for myself…

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