A lovely woman from my ovarian cancer group died last week. To be clear, she did not pass, depart or gain her teal wings – she Died.
Yesterday was the service, and a group of us drove up together. It was short and simple. There was no viewing, no hymns, no priest or minister, and few tears. Several people got up and talked about her, talking about her strength and positivity, and reminding us that she would not have wanted us to wallow, to cry, to grieve for her.
I didn’t cry, nor did anyone in our group. After the service we went out to lunch. We shared a beer, toasted our friend, then chatted, about nothing in particular. Afterwards, we nonchalantly went our separate ways, as if we’d spent the day at a seminar, not a funeral.
During the lunch I had received a text from a coworker. She wanted to know if I could cover her shift that night. I considered it. Seriously considered it. In the end I said no, not because I didn’t want to work, but because I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head saying “don’t do that”. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I knew there was a reason for me to stay home.
The next morning (today) I decided to go to yoga. The class was not a particularly heavy class in terms of messaging, yet halfway through I felt like crying. I brushed it off, not understanding why I felt that way. After yoga I decided to run a few errands for work. As I walking around Home Depot, trying to find someone to talk to about adhesives, I suddenly felt some invisible yet tangible force envelope my body, and dragging me down. It felt like I had stumbled into a pit of quicksand, each step forward harder than the one before as I sank further into the abyss.
As I escaped the store without talking to anyone, I realized what was happening: I was feeling grief. I was grieving for my friend. What should have hit me yesterday was taking its hold, insisting I pay attention, forcing me to look at, and feel, the pain of loss.
And now, I’m angry. I’m angry at cancer, and the randomness of who it takes and who it leaves behind. I’m angry at the universe for forcing some of us to live on the precipice of death, while others sail through life with nary a care in the world. I’m angry at the people who insist I “forget” about cancer, and instead celebrate my good health and the fact that I’m “lucky”. Most of all though, I’m angry at our society for denying me the opportunity to feel and embrace my grief.
I don’t understand our society’s approach to death. The increasing pressure to celebrate one’s life rather than grieve their passing feels disingenuous and counterintuitive to me. I don’t understand why the two are perceived to be mutually exclusive, and why the celebration has become more important than the mourning.
When a loved one dies, it is SAD. It is sad regardless of the life they lived. If their life was filled with pain, it is no less sad that they are dead, than if their life was filled with joy and love It is simply sad to lose someone.
When did feeling our grief, fear, rage, and anger become a bad thing?
I remember being bombarded with the “all things positive” philosophy during my treatment, and the year that followed. I was told I had to have a “good attitude” to survive. I had to think positively, utter only happy thoughts, and banish from my life any suggestion of the rage or fear I was feeling.
I had my first chemo 3 weeks after my radical hysterectomy (debulking). The chemo I did was intraperitoneal, meaning chemo drugs were injected directly into my abdomen – an abdomen that had just been diced, sliced and ripped to shreds. I completed my 1st treatment around 5:30 PM and was feeling ok in the hours that followed. Until about 11PM. Once everyone was in bed I noticed that it felt like broken glass was roaming around my belly, ping ponging off of every surface, skating along the raw wounds not yet healed. I sat through the night, helpless, in pain, and afraid. By 3AM I was frantic. The thought of going through this pain 11 more times was unfathomable. And, since I had no idea how long the pain would last, I assumed the worse – I was in for 20 weeks of searing pain. As the morning wore on I began obsessing about my prognosis. With less than a 50% chance of survival, and an 85% chance of recurrence, I grew increasingly agitated. I wondered who on earth thought it was ok for me to spend the final weeks of my life in such searing agony. By the time my sister woke up I had decided – I’d rather die than go through weeks of that pain. I was done with treatment.
I am fortunate to have a sister who is comfortable with uncomfortability. That morning she allowed me to rant and rage, to curse the universe, to question everything I’d ever believed, to doubt my own strength and dwell on my mortality. I don’t know many people who would have been able to listen to my ranting so calmly. Never once did she suggest I breath, check my attitude, try to be more positive, or calm down. Not once. I often wonder if I would have made it through all 6 cycles of treatment if her response had been different. There was such comfort in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be judged to be crazy, out of control or a drama queen. I would be allowed to go through the next four months in whatever fashion I required.
That was not my experience with everyone. In fact, most reacted more inline with our current culture; our current mantra of being “positive”, looking at the bright side, not dwelling on the negative. I lost count of the number of times I was told that if I didn’t think positively I would not make it through.
How ludicrous this statement is! “You must be positive to survive”, was what I heard over and over again. Really, I thought? I was going to die because of the words I used, the feelings I had? How crazy to think that it wouldn’t be cancer or chemo that killed me but would actually be me saying “this is bullshit” that would cause my demise. How short sighted we have become, banishing all things deemed negative.
It is both a blessing and a curse that I work in an environment in which I’m encouraged to share the messy, traumatic parts of my life. It is often stressful, facing feelings I don’t want to acknowledge. Today, though, it was a lifesaver. I left Home Depot and found myself sobbing driving home. I was dreading going in to our staff meeting, and I thought about not showing up. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but I got myself together and went in to the studio. As we settled in the manager asked me how I was, and it came pouring out.
I was mad! I was furious that we’d turned the memory of my friend, a vibrant, multi-faceted woman, into a lesson in delusion. I was mortified that her children, rather than mourn her, were forced to talk about only her good experiences. I was angry that we live in a society which demands we hide our humanity, not express our fear or pain. I was sad that my friends’ final years had been painful, and filled with fear and uncertainty. I was furious that any expression of fear, or pain, or mourning, would be met with argument; suggestions that it is not healthy for us to feel these feelings. As I poured out my thoughts, I felt my energy return. It was if each sentence was a step out of the pool of quicksand that had consumed me earlier that day.
Later, I spent some time with the woman who lost her son in September. To be clear, He Died. If anyone can relate to diving into the negativity it is she. As she allowed me to talk I found myself wondering if it might actually be physically detrimental to embrace only positivity; to force ourselves to focus on the good, look on the bright side. I told her that many of the women we have lost have been those with the best “attitude”. It almost seems like the more a woman focuses on all that is good in her life, never complaining, never raging or expressing her fear or anxiety, the more likely she is to remain in treatment and eventually die. Could that be? She wondered if there was any research substantiating the idea that it is imperative that we embrace all aspects of our lives, the good, the bad and the ugly. Naturally I googled it and lo and behold, there is a growing body of research that supports this notion.
I’m including this link because it expresses not only what I have suspected all along, but takes it a step further. This article, in reviewing current research, suggests that in embracing our negative emotions we are expanding our ability to assimilate all of life’s experience, thereby essentially diluting the impact of some of the worse life can throw at us, like cancer and death.
So, I end today giving myself permission to cry, to feel sorry for myself and my friend, and all of the other women suffering with this disease. I sign off with the intent of going to bed early, not doing the dishes and not finishing the laundry. I plan to eat poorly and not do any work. In other words, I’m going to have a pity party for myself and the group of lovely, incredibly strong woman I both love and admire, and wish I was not part of. And I will not apologize.