It has been 46 years since my brother died of cancer, and I have finally reached the “bitter resentment” stage of grief.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has shaped our conversations about death and dying for many years with her attention to the five stages of grief, which can relate not only to grave news about mortality but also to the death of others or to a cancer diagnosis.
One stage I was never good at is “anger and bargaining,” otherwise known as “bitter resentment.” My grief during the loss of loved ones tends to move quickly to acceptance. Having recently experienced “bitter resentment,” though, I can tell you it did me good.
“Finally!” I said to myself on the 46th anniversary of my brother’s death as the raw emotion of anger also released pent-up tears that continue to seep out now and then. Why did anger slip into my emotional arena after so long? I have always been a little pollyannish. “Just think,” I would say. “Experimental drugs helped him live almost a year longer!” “He had such a great attitude.” “He lived his life despite horrific pain.” I can still believe those things, though, and question fate.
Another reason I delayed anger is I was afraid to question fate. Yet another is the fact that I was self-absorbed. I thought too much about myself and my relationship with his death. I needed to gain more empathy, something my own cancer journey gave me a dose of.
This year, I finally allowed myself to imagine what he might have been feeling those last days when he told us to join him at the hospital because he did not have long to live.
I had to live enough of my life, three times his, to understand his pain. Now, older and wiser than John ever got to be, I am letting myself see my brother not only as a role model but as an ordinary human who died far too young.
That makes me angry.
I’m angry that he had never held an iPhone, never married, never had children, never went to Paris. I’m angry that the week we went on a family vacation with him, to a beach house he paid for at 20 years old so he could build a memory for us, he was too sick from chemo to walk to the ocean.
I’m angry that he never got to adopt a puppy or worry about COVID-19 or meet his nephews or pet my cats. I’m angry that he could not hold my hand when I came out of surgery for my cancer in the way I held his when he came out of surgery for his. I’m angry that he had to hurt so much, angry he did not get to live.
Before I allowed this anger in, my brother’s life was a beacon. My hero now feels like a mere mortal. What must it have felt like to be 21 and have a date with the Grim Reaper at 3:30 p.m. during an afternoon storm?
This is the moral of this story: It is possible to be happy somebody is no longer suffering and to yell at a universe that allows cancer to steal a life. Do not wait as long as I did to acknowledge this stage of grief. Bottling up anger can lead to depression and fear, which did follow me around over the years, and that is not what my brother would have wanted.
Letting myself feel “bitter resentment” at a death that occurred many years ago is a good sign, even if this new resentment intersects with an ongoing acceptance of my brother’s fate. If depression is anger turned inward, perhaps allowing ourselves to feel some anger when cancer touches or takes a life is healthy. I realize now how my lack of anger affected my own cancer journey, which was upbeat until it was not.
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