May 2018 Ask the Expert: Grief and Grieving

May 1, 2018

Grief is most commonly associated with the loss of people close to you, but it can also be sadness caused by any loss in your life. As someone with breast cancer, you may mourn the loss of your ability to do certain activities, the loss of your breast or hair, or the possibility that breast cancer could return or travel to other parts of your body.  If you’re living with metastatic breast cancer, you may also begin to grieve the future milestones you could miss someday.

In May, Living Beyond Breast Cancer expert Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, BCD, answered your questions about grief and grieving, including what causes it, how to recognize it, ways to cope and when you should seek help.

Remember: we cannot provide diagnoses, medical consultations or specific treatment recommendations. This service is designed for educational and informational purposes only. The information is general in nature. For specific healthcare questions or concerns, consult your healthcare provider because treatment varies with individual circumstances. The content is not intended in any way to substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.

I recently lost my niece to breast cancer. I went through treatment for breast cancer 14 years ago this month (I can't use the survivor word any more, I need another word) and my sister did as well. How do we cope with the loss of others close to us from the same disease?

First of all, I’m very sorry about the death of your loved ones. I hear all the time about the grief that surrounds people living with cancer. So many women living with breast cancer lose friends and I wonder how they can keep participating in support groups and Facebook groups as they are exposed to so much sorrow. It’s OK to take “cancer breaks” and take time away from all things cancer related. This isn’t about denial, but rather self-care and preservation. One idea I often share is to find a way to honor the one who has died. Lighting a candle, planting a tree, making a charitable donation in their name are a few ideas. Honoring their story, yet being clear it’s not YOUR story is important. Even people living with the same disease, have different experiences. This is important to remember. I wish each of you peace.

How do you move on with life after learning you inherited a mutation that raises your breast cancer risk? Frequent testing and even seeing myself in the mirror [after a double mastectomy] are reminders of what I stand to lose.

I think it’s empowering and difficult to know our geneticinfo-icon makeup. The constant surveillance puts people in constant moments of anxietyinfo-icon, worry and fear. And yet, most of my patients feel empowered and responsible as well. Honor the grief. Honor the fear. Give them both words. The best advice I can give is to practice living in the Now. Create a mantra or saying to bring you back to this moment. This moment is the only one that we can influence entirely. Living too far ahead makes us anxious. Also reassure yourself should you get cancer, it will be found early and there will be a plan. There is always a plan.

I am alone (my husband is deceased) and I am not close with my family. What are some other places I can find emotional support?

I’m so sorry for your loneliness and sense of isolation. I am glad you are connected to LBBC. This is an excellent place to find support. Also, a support groupinfo-icon, either for grief or cancer offers friendship and support. You can ask your oncologistinfo-icon’s office or local places of faith for resources. It is recommended that you not do this alone. Even if we just have one person, we can manage much better. Loneliness makes worse the existing emotional struggles from grief and illness, you are wise to seek support. Wishing you peace and meaningful connections.

What suggestions do you have for helping my young adult daughters deal with the grief and fear they experience knowing I have a terminal disease?

One of the most important things when we are dealing with fear is to name it. Ask your daughters to say out loud or to even write down what their greatest fears are. Sometimes we make the assumption that we know what we are scared of, but we can often discover things deep within ourselves when we say those fears out loud and have a conversation about them.  People are often pleasantly surprised that when they discuss their fears and they have someone who is a trusted person listen to them their fears can diminish somewhat. Grief starts at the time of diagnosisinfo-icon and it’s important for people to realize they are in anticipatory grief already. Seeing  a grief therapist would be a good idea starting now.

Also, what can we do as a family to help my daughters prepare for my death and the grief that will follow?

I will often encourage my patients to write letters to their children for after they die. These letters act as a way to remind the person of how much you love them, but also gives them permission to keep living after you are gone. Sometimes it’s helpful to find a list of grief therapists in the area and present to the family as something that you would like them to do. Grief is so individual and it can be difficult to know what people are going to need. Encourage your daughters to allow themselves to be as vulnerable as they can with people they trust. We need to feel to heal.

My partner does not want family members or others to know about her metastatic diagnosis. Coping alone has been difficult for me, but I am also worried she is not seeking the support she needs. How do I talk to her about getting the help we need while still being supportive?

This sounds like a very difficult situation and I am so sorry. One thing I would ask from your partner is to voice the reason she does not want people to know. I will often see people do this as a way to protect those they love, but in the end I have only seen it hurt people because it does not give others the opportunity to deal with this. Each person has the right to decide who knows what about their story. As a caregiverinfo-icon you also have the right to receive support. Maybe try presenting to your partner that in order for you to be able to take care of her you have to take care of yourself. Part of taking care of yourself is having outlets for people to support you. Again, find out the reason behind keeping it so private. 

I wish you both well.

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