Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sitting Shiva

Everyone grieves differently, that is elementary. Some want certain things said, some want nothing said, some want anything and everything said, and some just don't know what to say. A grieving person can be volatile, emotional, and very sensitive. Something you might think would be good to say, may just be the one thing to put them over the edege. So, when in doubt, say nothing. By all means, I am not suggesting to ignore the person, or give them "space." There are many ways to show the person that you care and are there for them. You just don't want to put your foot in your mouth at a time like this. You can send them a card, bring them a meal, pray for them, or just be with them. All without saying a word.

Many religions and cultures observe s specific bereavement period in many ways, some similiar and some very different. Some shorter, but some lasting up to 2 years. But the universal deinition for true mourning is all the same. All use the word "Mourning" to descibe a "cultural complex of behaviours in which the breaved participate." This can vary from wearing special clothing, veils, or jewelry, to not working or cooking, to following very specific timelines, some of which could be defined as very purposeful rituals. But all are synonomous with deep, intense meaning.

There is an old Jewish custom for grieving and mourning during the bereavement period, called Shiva. Although I am not Jewish, there is much appealing about this ritual to the naieve eye. They very purposely set aside a certain amount of time for certain mourning stages, to help the grievers heal properly. This culture definitely acknowledges the need to grieve. The stages are very specific and thought out with the griever in mind. The mourning begins with a 7 day period called Shiva, then a 30 day period called Shloshim, followed by a 12 month period caleed Shneim. The first seven days, more specifically named as the Sitting Shiva, is a period where close friends and family members come to the griever's house and just SIT with them. Nothing has to be said and no one is searching for the right thing (or anything) to say. You just sit. You acknowledge the griever's pain and make your presence known to them and that you care. The grievers do not go to work and they purposely set aside this time to look different than normal everyday life. They are encouraged not to worry about their appearances and mirrors are even covered to reinforce this principle. They most often wear dark or black clothing and somtimes even ripped outer garments to symbolize their inner ripped hearts. All of these traditions are to be subtle reminders of the temporary nature of our bodies and our shared morality.

Our Western Civilization knows very little about true grieving. It is not something taught to us nor anything we are ever properly prepared for. All we know as a whole is that we want it to hurry along and go away. We don't want to see the person crying or mourning. It makes us all very uncomfortable, as close friends and a distnat society. We want to neatly sweep it all into a box in the corner. Now I am not talking about a typical everyday death that we all face at one time or another. I am talking about a tragic loss of a very dear loved one that is unexpected, or comes too soon in life, or comes with a long term illness that steals their life and dignity away. Not just the ordinary sadness, but GRIEF, with a capital G. And this type of sorrow can not be rushed along or put on a timeline. We all must grieve individually as we need so we can properly heal from the loss of our loved one. And the more you loved, the more you will grieve. But unfortunately, just after a few weeeks of the loss, our society wants it all to be over and done with and back to "normal" as quickly as possible. But it's just not that easy.

Our own Christian Bible, of which many of our basic beliefs were found upon, gives us some insight into the mourning process. It does not say we are exempt from feeling sorrow or mourning, just because we are believers. It does not say "if" we mourn or weep, but in Ecclesiastes it says, "There IS a time to weep.......there IS a time to mourn." In Psalm 34, it says we will be "brokenhearted" and "crushed in spirit." And in Jeremiah it says we will "mourn and have sorrow." But the good news is found at the end of these passages! In Ecclesiastes, God promises us there will be a time of dancing and laughing AFTER the weeping and mourning! In Psalms, God reminds us he is close to the broken hearted. And in Jeremiah, God promises that He will "turn our mourning into gladness. He will give us comfort and joy instead of sorrow!" So, yes,the mourning and bereavement stages of a greiver will be there, BUT........they will eventually end. And that is a promise we can cling to.

So, sit tight. Don't rush the process. Be sensitive to those greiving. Give them time, not space. And if you just don't know what to say.........then just "sit."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Cancer Returns

I remember the day I truly acknowledged and accepted the reality of Mom's condition, the day my anticipatory grief probably began.

Yes, I heard what the doctor first told us after the original surgery in May. Oh yes, I clearly remember that day too. Mom had been in surgery for hours. She had been the last scheduled surgery of the day. We watched as all the other surgeons came out and greeted the families one by one and spoke briefly with them to tell them things seemed ok. Then one by one, we watched the families gather their belongings, to be taken to see their loved one down the hall, looking a little more relieved. But not us....we were different. We were the last family left anxiously sitting or pacing in the waiting room that day. It seemed like forever. And when our name was called, we were not greeted by the surgeon, but an assistant who asked us to follow him down "another" hall, a different one. We were taken behind a closed door, to a small, intimate room, where our doctor would meet us shortly. I remember the door closing, as I noticed all the Kleenex boxes gently and purposely placed around the room. BOOM!......a punch to my gut. I instantly felt sick to my stomach. "This is NOT good," I said. "We are in the bad news room." "No one else was brought back here!" "You are right," said my sister, "you are right." The room fell silent. You could have heard a pin drop. The surgeon shortly arrived where he sat down to give us the news, and it was NOT good. They had not been able to get it all. It was bigger than they originally thought. It had spread through her lymph nodes. It was stage four and it did not look good. They would do an aggressive chemo, and keep it "at bay" as long as possible, but the outcome would still be the same. The prognosis was that fifty percent of patients in this case would live an average of 5 years. Some maybe 10, at best, and some maybe 2 years or less. BOOM! Another punch. Where is Mom? Can we see her now? Does SHE know? Who is going to tell her this? And how?

So, yes, I heard him that day, but still far, far in the back of my mind, gut, and heart, I kept a glimpse of hope in some miracle. I was still not ready to FULLY accept it. Not until 3 months later, when we recieved another punch in the gut. They just kept coming. They were so relentless with no remorse.

It was late Monday afternoon, August 4th. They had run some more tests on Mom due to some dizziness and high blood pressure and we had been awaiting the results. Some years ago, back in 1998, she experienced a kind of heat stroke while at a Buc's game. She had blacked out and was actully taken to the ER via ambulance. She recovered and all was well. But as the years passed, she kept telling us "something" happened that day, that "something" was just not the same. She was more tired than normal and found it harder to process information and/or make decisions. So, as the doctors ran these new tests and MRI's on her brain, we were all beleiving that they were going to confirm she had had a mini-stroke years ago. So, it was very much to my surprise when Dad called and told me they had found new tumors (plural) and that the cancer had returned and with a vengence. I was home alone with the 3 kids, and remember going to the laundry room to take the call, to find some privacy, to have a moment of peace and hide. Again, the phone call was short. I sank, my heart AND my body. My knees buckled as I dropped to the floor. I cried uncontrollably, sobbing, almost hyper-venilating. I managed to call Patrick at work, but then could not speak. He heard me crying having no idea what was going on. "Come..........home." I stuttered between short breaths. "Come..........home." That was all I could get out. I was still on the laundry room floor when he arrived home and found me there, just a few short minutes later. He had called my dad on the way to see if he knew what was wrong, and that is where he got the news. He came in and carried me to the bedroom and laid me on the bed, where I remained for a few hours just sobbing. I was in complete shock! Afterall, she had just had 3 months of clear reports that the cancer was in remission. The chemo had worked. It was gone. Her CA number had been nominal. It seemed things had changed and taken a turn for the better. This was NOT what I was expecting. Brain tumors???? Was he serious??? Were they sure it was cancer??? How did it go from her colon to her brain??? And when???

It was THEN that I knew the battle was going to be short. It was THEN that I fully accepted what was to come. It was THEN that my anticipatory grief began.

Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory Grief.......I had never heard of this until now, of course.

Everyone loses someone, and we all are extremely sad, but not all grieve. But once grief strikes you,(and you will know when it does) you must go through the grief process. It may look different for each individual, but will share many common denominators. My grief class gives the analogy of a snow storm. Many will go through the storm, but will weather it in different ways. All will experience the snow, the bitter cold, the wind in your face, but each storm can be as individual as the snowflakes within. The snowflakes represent different factors that make our stories unique, still holding on to the unwanted, common thread of death. Some factors include who the person was, how close you were to them, how they died, and the manner in which they died.

Some may know death is coming, like those of us who faced a terminal illness such as cancer. When this happens, they say that you will very likely start grieving the minute you acknowledge and accept the reality of your loved one's condition. So, your grieving process may start earlier than those who face a sudden, unexpected death. They say it may give you more time to "accept" what is to come, or give you more time to do or say things that you may not have gotten to otherwise. They say it can help you with closure and to minimize any guilt or regrets you could have had in another situation. They say it can give you time to mend relationships and restore feelings that may have been lost or just not shown. Blah, blah, blah........
Yes, I get this. yes, I understand this. And yes, I even agree with most of it, BUT with all of this in mind, I STILL believe it is a myth to believe or assume that those of us who experienced anticipatory grief have it any easier. Or that we will find it less difficult to work through the grief process. It does NOT matter how long you know, or how much warning you get, NOTHING can prepare you for the death of a dear loved one. NOTHING can or will make it any easier or lessen the pain. And NOTHING can prepare you to watch your mom slowly die.

I don't know if I am saying it would be better to have someone go quickly or more suddenly, but I do know I would NOT wish for someone to slowly die and suffer as death is prolonged. I am glad to have had those extra months with Mom. I am glad to have had just a few more days or even minutes by her side. I do NOT take those for granted. I would give anything now for just one more hug or one more I love you. A million of them would not now seem enough.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The C Word

I will never forget the day we heard the "C" word for the first time. CANCER. It hit you like a big blow to your gut, with no remorse. It left a knot in your stomach accompanied with a sick, nauseous feeling. You just wanted it to go away......the feeling, the nausea, the word.........IT! But little did we know at that time, that the C-word nor this feeling would not be going away for us and our family, anytime soon, or even at all. That C-word would have a new meaning in our lives from that day on, never to be looked at the same again.

It was April 4th, 2007, Avery's birthday. It was a beautiful spring break day. Joy and I had taken the two girls to the beach for the day. The sun was shining, the sky was a gorgeous shade of blue, with not a cloud in the sky. There was a breeze blowing, just cool enough to keep us from getting too hot. The kids were playing, and we were soaking up the sun and enjoying the weather. We knew what day it really was. We knew where Mom and Dad were. We knew it was the day Mom was having her reccommended colonoscopy, but we did not really think much past that. We knew she had been sick, but also knew there would be a very simple explaination for we thought. After months of just not feeling good, she was now doing some tests with the doctors to find the root of her sickness and we were confident that they would find just the right prescription to "make her better." Afterall, isn't that what doctors did? It was just irritable bowel syndrome, or maybe an ulcer, or possibly even contaminated peanut butter that she just knew she had at her house. It was all over the news. She had even taken her jar to the doctor's office to have them check it out! She was always so cautious and preventitive and pro-active with her health. She wanted tests run on her jar, and tests run on her. That is where they first found the "fishy" blood test results.....from the stupid peanut butter testing! I hated peanut butter for months, blaming it for causing us to have to hear the C-word in the first place! But later realized it was the contaminated peanut butter that led us to the answers and doctors that would be her help for the next 20 months.

It was about noonish and we had stepped away from the beach for a moment to grab some lunch. Joy answered the phone. Silence came first, follwed by what she thought sounded like Dad's voice. She was not able to make out what he was trying to say, and then, silence again before the call ended. "That was wierd," she said. Then moments later, another ring, where Dad forced himself to tell us of the findings from Mom's colonoscopy. All I remember was, "not good" and "possibly cancer." The phone call was brief. It was all Dad could get out at the moment. We sat, emotions and thoughts raging. Looking back now, I think we were both in shock. We did not say much, we did not know what to say. "It's ok," we thought. "It will be ok." "She will be ok." "Right?" "Of course," we thought. "She has to."