Conquering Grief Is Tricky, Yet Healthy for Cancer Survivors

March 15, 2018
Barbara Tako
Barbara Tako

Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or

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.