As we have identified, no one goes through cancer unscathed. Recently, this has been coming up in a number of different ways- personally, it is seeing the lingering impact on my youngest son who was 5 and starting kindergarten when I was diagnosed. Knowing that I couldn’t fully protect him from that experience- and the lingering stress that follows, is something that weighs heavy on my heart.
Another way that it has come up is related to survivor guilt. From my perspective, survivor guilt manifests from the experience of watching people we love go through cancer treatment and/or having them die from cancer.
Just like someone who walks away from a plane crash, we wonder why were spared and they were not… we feel helpless to soothe their loved ones… we feel badly when we are not fully grateful… the list goes on and on.
Yet, we are tribal people and we need the connection to others who have been there… being connected is a crucial component of healing AND it also asks us to confront how unjust life can be, how little control we have over outcomes, the mortality of others and ourselves… As Robert Neimeyer wrote:
We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. How we negotiate that tension shapes who we become.
To be fully alive and present, we need to find ways to allow ourselves to process the many losses that come along with life. Death is certainly a loss and a grief process that we see as valid, although we frequently underestimate the time needed to fully grieve. All endings, not just death, have components of grief and loss, in part because when something comes to an end, we reflect upon the experience and the thoughts, feelings and expectations we had about it.
Grieving when you are also experiencing survivor guilt becomes more complex, because we share the common experience of having cancer and thus inevitably we think about ourselves. The tension that comes from trying to do both can cause us to shut down, withdraw, become overwhelmed, judge ourselves… and this tension can easily go unnoticed and underground.
The taboos about talking about death and dying, the difficulty of honoring our own process and needs when we know someone “has it worse”, our tendency to compare and to ruminate about things that are out of our control…
All of these things add to the shroud of silence that often accompanies the waves of grief. For the waves of grief inevitably come with the gift of life. As the quote from Havelock Ellis in the meme above reminds us:
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on
In order to walk through our survival guilt, our grief, we need to find small ways that we can practice letting go and holding on. When we do this, we find the ability to release the tension that keeps us stuck and unable to be fully embody what we have been through. When we do this, we begin to find the ability to be alive and connected to ourselves and to those we love, learning to surf the waves despite the challenges we and our loved ones face.
Tell me, what is a small gesture or act you can do right now to practice letting go and holding on? I’d love to hear it, shoot me an email, send me a PM or write below. XO
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.