Can anything good come of it?
by Sharon Roth-Lichtenfeld, CPC, PPC, ELI-MP, Paula Holland De Long, ACC, CPCC, and Tambre Leighn, MA, PCC, ELI-MP
Everyone experiences it. Some people fear it, desperately seeking to get out of it quickly. Others wrap it around themselves and sink deeply into it, sometimes for years. It’s more than just a feeling – it’s a process. It is grief. Grief is the conflicting feelings and inner turmoil caused by the end of – or change in – something. Many people have this notion that they can avoid grief. But, guess what? You can’t. It’s part of the human experience.
For people with cancer and their loved ones, a cancer diagnosis can set off the grief process. This process often leads to you feeling deprived of your personal power. But the truth is, in the background of grief, there is immense power, purpose, and transformation occurring. Grief can be the launch pad of something vital – resilience.
Put simply, resilience is our capacity to deal with discomfort (grief) and adversity (the change that brought it about). It’s a set of proactive skills and a healthy mindset during grief that can lead us to building sustained well-being. Grief can be the catalyst of self-destruction – or it can be a springboard for self-improvement. You have the power to choose which path will be yours.
Grief can be the catalyst of self-destruction – or it can be a springboard for self-improvement. You have the power to choose.
How can grief be transformed into resilience, self-empowerment, and transformation? First, we must address some common beliefs about grief that lead to
♦ Grief is never-ending; it feels like there’s no end in sight.
♦ There’s no reason or meaning in grief; it’s just there to cause pain.
♦ You can’t move forward by grieving; that’s impossible.
Let’s debunk these so-called truths about grief. It will change your entire experience of cancer, empower you, and lead you on your way to resilience.
♦ Grief is an active process.
If you’re just reacting in your grief, then you’re treating grief as passive. This kind of thinking can, and usually does, result in you feeling like a victim to it.
On the contrary, grief is an active process. What does this mean? Well, it means that grief is challenging you to deal with your emotional pain, caused by cancer, while bidding you to engage in the new life you now find yourself in.
Think of it as an upward spiral, not a linear experience. The spiral begins at the emotional low point (for you, this may be your diagnosis), and you circle upward climbing out of the pain. From time to time, you may spiral downward; however, you stay above the lowest point. The farther you climb up and out of the spiral, the less power the grief has over you. Viewing the grief process in this way pulls you out of victimhood and into control.
Be active in your grief by identifying your natural strengths. These are the skills and abilities that come easily to you. They kick in unconsciously to create an inner ballast for you when you want to circulate upward in the downward spiral of grief. Make them conscious. Cultivate them.
♦ Grief has a purpose and a meaning.
If you feel there’s no purpose or meaning in grief, you will fall into suffering. The first purpose of the grief process is to compel you to participate in adapting to this new and different life with cancer. After that, the real power here is not focusing on how cancer caused you to suffer. The power comes from discovering and claiming how you are getting through it (or have gotten through it). From there, you can focus on what is truly important to you, and why.
Create your purpose and meaning by reflecting over your cancer experience and asking, What have I learned about this challenge of facing cancer? What have I learned about myself? State facts, not emotional opinion. This will help you define your new values, or priorities in your life, outside of your cancer experience. It will guide you in reorganizing your life and setting the stage for your next chapter.
♦ You can move forward, even in grief.
Believing that you must heal before you can move forward will eventually lead you to believing you are stuck. Since grief is an active process, filled with hidden meaning and purpose, healing and moving forward are often parallel experiences within this process. In other words, you can heal and move forward at the same time. You don’t have to do one before the other. Moving forward begins when you put emphasis on what you can do while you are healing.
You can move forward while you are in grief by making a conscious choice to do so. Make a mental list (or a written list) of all the things you are still able to do. Make sure you include your emerging skills, or tasks, that have come about through your cancer experience. Simply defining these new activities and abilities is forward motion.
Cancer is a huge challenge to work your way through. The grief it activates is an important part of the experience. You can use your grief to your advantage. When you pay attention to it from this new perspective, you will see the power and purpose in the grieving.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.