Conquering Grief Is Tricky, Yet Healthy for Cancer Survivors


Balancing grief and guilt can be tricky after the death of a loved one, says one cancer survivor.

Grief is a tricky process that we each get to figure out in order to move through it. How can we process the grief without getting stuck in a mental rut of depression or anxiety? Sometimes it can be tricky to work through something without getting stuck in it.

I struggle with grief and guilt and “what-ifs” as I process my 84-year-old mom's death from metastatic breast cancer and move forward myself as a breast cancer and melanoma survivor. I identify the grief of her loss as feelings of deep ongoing sadness. On the other hand, the guilt, depression and what-if's in my thoughts feel sluggish and more sticky than sadness alone.

How can I forgive myself? I made a commitment to unconditionally love Mom and Dad for the previous five years when I moved my parents from a different state to be closer to me, their only child. I feel like I did not unconditionally love Mom the last two weeks of her life and the last few hours. I literally backed away at the end. Easy answer: my own deep sadness and grief, exhaustion, and the busyness of our home downsizing move happening at the same time. I failed her at the very end, and it hurts.

Did I do it to hurt Mom? Of course not. The next thing I tell myself is that I was selfish, which leads very nicely into my very old internal tapes that say to me, "selfish bad person, you are never good enough." I cry and rant quietly — or sometimes loudly when no one is home. I want her back. I want her back. I want her back. Next, I say it wasn't good for her, even before hospice. I see this in photos and I remember it: difficulties moving and walking, pain, bathroom accidents, loss of privacy with her toileting and bathing. I didn't want her to linger for me, for my sake. Dear God, please let her know how sorry I am. The end of life wasn't good for her and I could have been there with her more.

My talk therapist shared some helpful perspectives when I brought up my difficulty balancing the grief and guilt. She said dying is a private process. She called it an individual journey — a personal soul journey. My therapist helped me realize that in the end, death was not something I could have alleviated or changed for my mom. My mom didn't need me. Dying is an alone process. My therapist even suggested that I was projecting my own expectations onto my mom, and she said that maybe my decreased presence was even a blessing for my mom. I don't know.

I do know that grief, whether coping with a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, is a spikey process that does get better over time. I do know that grief is tricky when it gets mixed in with other emotions, or when it blindsides us. I found myself unexpectedly in tears today in front of a pottery bowl decorated with turtles that I thought my mom would like. We will be able to cope and get through our grief and maybe it will be a tiny, tiny bit easier when we recognize that grief can sometimes be a tricky process.

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