This month’s blog is very personal to me as I try to prepare myself for the imminent passing of my father who has been battling cancer for the last 7 years. In so many ways, we as a family have been going through the grieving process since the day dad was first diagnosed back in May 2016. This is his second diagnosis after recovering from prostate cancer in 2011 which he said was ‘a walk in the park’ in comparison. Round two is in his bone marrow and blood, multiple myeloma. We have adjusted to so many new normals as we’ve journeyed with him on the difficult path that this disease has led him on. A diagnosis of cancer has the same psychological stages as grief, neither linear, but multidimensional. The stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all part of the process and come at various times to varying degrees. We have held dad’s hand as he’s made choices along the way about his treatment options and as he navigated each option through trial and error, while ultimately deciding what felt right for him.
He chose to have chemo treatment only to stop it after a year because it was destroying his body, mind and soul, regardless of the risk of the cancer killing him. He chose alternative routes like CBD oil and immunoglobulin treatment, he even tried the alkaline PH method which is a process of keeping the body’s PH level in alkaline long enough to kill cancer cells. The cancer was in remission for a couple of years but after the chemo dads immune system was so low he battled pneumonia several times, all the while getting weaker and weaker. His journey has been such a rollercoaster of highs and lows, hope and despair, fear and love. For us, especially mam, it has been so difficult to watch the man we love dearly struggling to accept his illness, to literally waste away before our eyes, to feel so weak in body but yet so determined and strong in mind and to now finally accept defeat to the curse that is cancer. Words will never be able to explain the journey people with this diagnosis have to endure. And although the only things that are inevitable in life are death, taxes and change the question is, how do you prepare yourself for the finality of losing your life, and for us, losing such an integral part of our lives?
Our grief is a reflection of how deeply we love and in turn how deeply we feel loss when we lose that love. Obviously grief is a universal experience but yet how we process it is so individual and there really is no right or wrong way. It is a process we all have to go through but unfortunately knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. I think what’s important is that we allow ourselves to grieve in our own way and we ask people to respect that.
Although we knew dads passing was inevitable, as is all of ours, his death will be the most significant loss and one that will change all our lives forever, one that we will all feel at the deepest level of our core. Personally, for the last 7 years I thought I was preparing myself, I thought I was ready for that dreaded day but now that it’s here I know I’m not ready. When are you ever ready to lose your daddy? I can’t imagine life without him. The only thing giving me any comfort is his readiness, his want and need for the journey to be over. But yet saying that, he still has so much strength left in him.
Dad and I are kindred spirits, our birthdays are a day apart. We have all the characteristics of a stereotypical tuarean, bull headed but down-to-earth, loyal and good craic. Dad has taught me the most important lessons in life. He is a self-made man and worked like a dog all his life to provide for all of us. He is a man of virtue, he has no time for BS and prides himself in being real. His favourite expression is ‘f**k the begrudgers’.
Losing him is going to feel like losing a limb. Preparing for that loss to land as gently as possible has been something I have been so cognisant of. In an attempt to put coping strategies in place to help the process, I turned my focus to the five stages of grief. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Being aware of these stages has helped me process my thoughts, feelings and emotions more effectively. They have given me permission to grieve whichever way I need to and accept grieving the loss of dad will be my own unique journey.
This first stage is characterised as burying your head in the sand. It is a coping mechanism to bypass the pain of loss. It is our brain’s way of shutting down rather than having to process overwhelming emotions. We usually feel numb, shocked, confused and disoriented. Denial is a form of avoidance. We go into survival mode and try to normalise the emotional pain. Our thoughts are usually incongruent with our feelings. We desperately want to stay in the familiar reality and not accept the loss, the change, the prospect of a different normal. Denial protects us from the reality that is happening until we are ready to process. It helps us go into autopilot and do what needs to be done, whether to prepare for a funeral, care for a loved one or just stay on top of things. Denial is a temporary disassociation to what is going on but it’s our minds’ natural way to seek relief and self-soothe. We are in denial about the consequences of death rather than death itself. Denial can appear at various stages of the grieving process, not just at the beginning. Everyone processes pain in different ways and on different timelines, it usually comes with a diagnosis, a loss and the unfamiliar new normal after a loss. Denial can creep in and out of the grieving journey and beyond, it is like a tug-of-war between acceptance until permanent acceptance finds its home.
It is normal and healthy to be angry throughout the grieving process. Emotional pain often provokes a reaction. It is the “fight” response to our circumstances. During the grief process our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is out of whack. We have no control over death or loss. Anger can be a healthy response to this lack of control but it also can be self destructive if we lash out. It is natural to want to blame someone or something for the loss we are experiencing. We can be angry with a terminal illness, angry with a tragic death, even angry with the person for leaving us, abandoning us albeit it irrational. Anger helps us gain back control. But really what anger represents is unbearable sadness. It’s o.k. to feel angry but it’s very important to learn how to direct it in a productive way. Anger can trigger us, it can be the storm before the calm, a release of emotions that need to leave the body rather than stay trapped and fester causing long term harm. Somatic therapy is a great way to process anger, doing things like exercising, breathwork, drumming, kickboxing, singing, dancing, journaling, and cold water immersion. Any physical outlet can help defuse anger and channel it in a healthy way rather than lashing out at innocent bystander who may also be on their own grieving journey. Anger can be used to ignite positive change, to fuel determination to come to terms with the loss and create a new reality.
Bargaining is similar to denial as it is a form of self-preservation. It is a form of misguided hope where we try to negotiate with ‘the powers that be’ to reverse the prospect of loss or the loss itself. We bargain with science, with God, with any way we can find to cheat death, to override the inevitable and try to influence a different outcome. Bargaining is the stage where it is still too difficult to accept the reality of loss. Again we seek control where we have none, it is a feeling of helplessness. We try to avoid the trauma of our circumstances by becoming hypervigilant about self- preservation. We may project blame, in others, the system, the illness, the tragedy or we promise to become advocates to prevent anyone experiencing the same trauma and sadness around loss. We desperately try to alleviate the pain we are experiencing by making promises to be better, do better, to search for meaning. We may feel guilty or ashamed of our thoughts or actions. We feel scared, insecure, or anxious about our new normal and find ourselves ruminating over what could have been, what we could have done better, how we could have prevented things or spent more time and effort into making more memories, being more present, doing more for the person we have lost. We use bargaining as a line of defence against the emotions of grief, to postpone the hurt, pain and sadness. We become acutely aware of our humanness and humility in this stage of the grieving process.
Depression sets in when bargaining no longer feels like an option and we have to come to terms with the reality of our situation. We realise that we cannot reverse or prevent what is happening. Depression is considered the worst stage of grief because it is when we lose all hope and we try to ride the wave of loss. Depression brings about swings of emotions and deep feelings of sadness or anguish. Physical symptoms include insomnia, loss of appetite, comfort eating, agitation or irritability, anxiety, a feeling of emptiness, low energy, aches and pains, outbursts of tears. It can come and go in bursts or feel constant. We can withdraw and isolate ourselves, turn inwards with our grief and want to be alone. It is a dangerous tight rope because when we internalise in a depressed state we tend to have very unhelpful, negative thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, guilt, blame, hopelessness, etc. It is important to try and find a balance, to push ourselves to build our new normal, to ask for help and try to find pleasure in the little things, even if that pleasure is in talking about fond memories with the loved one we have lost. It is important to talk about our difficult feelings, express them and look for ways to self-soothe. We need to take care of our body through nutritious food, hydration, exercise and sleep. We also need to trust that even though there is no set time frame, slowly things will improve.
Acceptance is considered the final stage of grief. It is the realisation that things are never going to go back to normal and we learn how to be o.k. with the new normal. Acceptance isn’t about no longer feeling pain and sadness but is when we let go of the resistance and struggle to make things different. We step out of survival mode and surrender to the loss. We move out of despair and anguish and move towards recognition and recovery. It is when we begin to adjust to our new normal, life without our loved one. Acceptance is when we no longer ignore, rage, beg or plead, cry and cry some more but we begin the healing process. This is not to say we won’t relapse but it starts to feel more bearable, less intense and easier to cope with. The healing process is slow and multidimensional. Special occasions like birthdays, Christmas, holidays will likely trigger us again. Memories flood back in and can be very emotional and bring us right back to those feelings of despair and loss. But life becomes more routine and less empty. Everything about grief is nuanced and when we surrender and accept we can learn how to navigate through our emotions, life without our loved one and a more hopeful future. We can sometimes feel guilty for moving on with life without our loved one but if we embrace all the love and joy that person brought us we can use it to empower us and realise we are a better person because of them. Acceptance is letting go of the need to hold on and learning to love on a new level, trusting that our loved one will somehow give us the strength to move forward and create a new familiar.
All the stages of grief are intertwined and can creep up at different times in different ways. Having gone through all the stages already I have learnt many different coping strategies. I practise breathwork and meditation to regulate my nervous system, I try to live in the moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. I use positive affirmations to lift my spirits. I sea swim and spend as much time as possible in nature to soothe my body, mind and soul. I journal to express my feelings and check in with where I’m at on a daily basis. I name, vocalise and express my feelings as I feel them. I have learnt how to sit with my feelings instead of repressing them or turning to unhealthy vices like alcohol, eating crap food or burning the candle at both ends. I try to incorporate a healthy diet into my daily routine, using natural supplements to support my immune system. I have tried to make sure my time spent with dad is quality time. I have asked him all the questions I need to know. My brother taped him awhile back talking about his life so future generations can get to know their grandad. We as a family are as ready as we can be. We allow ourselves to be wherever we’re at and be o.k. with that. We will cope whatever way we cope and have each other’s back to ensure we stay strong. Dad is at peace, he is comfortable and he is ready, we couldn’t ask for better under the circumstances.
I think it’s important to maintain good communication and ensure you have a strong support network around you when dealing with a loss of any kind. This doesn’t have to be a death, it can be the end of a relationship, job, home, a life you wanted, missed opportunities, an illness or injury that changes your life. Grief can hit us all throughout our lives in many different ways. The 5 stages of grief is a theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who studied the most common stages people went through. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way so whatever way grief comes to you try to embrace it and work through it the best way you know how. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As a hypnotherapist, breathwork instructor and intuitive guide, I have developed a program to help deal with grief and all its stages. Feel free to reach out. DM me here to make an appointment or check out my social media for helpful tips and breathing exercises. You don’t have to grieve alone, there are so many resources to help.