Coping with Loss after Cancer

There is a raw wordless ache in my core. When I start to approach it, it builds into a fire that agitates my whole system and threatens to engulf the whole of me. It’s in my pulse and my blood. My scalp prickles and my hair hurts. I itch all over. My hands are restless, so I scrub dishes and fold laundry and pull weeds. I’m afraid that if I get too close to it, all my positive efforts at healing and rebuilding… my health, my career, all my gratitude, that it will careen off into a blurry void of hopelessness and crash into a gully of despair.

Three people in my circle have had their lives taken by cancer this year. Their names are Champagne Joy, Milyn Kukon and just this past weekend, Cat Barney. Cat and I were newly acquainted, and I wish I had more time to know her. Our sons go to school together, and this similarity in age, the idea of leaving behind a husband and son, it gathers the storm clouds and terrifies me.

I want to put a name on it, to analytically dissect it. That is safer than feeling the tsunami of emotion. I am left with this question:  How can I experience loss without retraumatization?

I have heard the saying that, “Anger is Sad’s bodyguard,” but I wonder if Sad is somehow allowing the walls to still stand. Anger threatens to obliterate me. Anger seeks to undo my remasking as a “Person Among the Living” after the absurdity that is cancer. Who am I angry with? Is it God? Is it Mankind’s destruction of the environment? Why would my genetic code go haywire like this?

I don’t know what to do with these feelings, so I write. I lean into my community again, like I did when I was weak and bald and sutured. What comes to me now is the image of being carried by a sea of people who love and support me.

After Harvey and Irma, and our mass retraumatization of watching these devastating images, I remember that most of us intimately know loss and pain and the vulnerability of being alive. I see these images and all I want to do is get on a bus and head to the most ravished place I can find and try to pick up the pieces.

As I wrote Cat’s name the sun broke through. I want to tell myself a story that she and Milyn and Champagne are everywhere now, all around us, invisible in the air, and we can breathe them in. Is raw vulnerability the gift they left? This reminder of impermanence? It makes me double down on my mission. Busy is my default coping mode.

Refocusing on the other, finding my community again, I’m leaning in.

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