How to Cope With The Loss of A Loved One From Cancer

by Jane Ashley

Each person experiences grief differently — the loss of a loved one from cancer is particularly difficult. Spouses, parents, adult children and children still at home may go through several phases of grief once their loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

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And of all of the diseases, a cancer diagnosis is one of the most difficult medical situations that we must face. After the shock of our loved one’s diagnosis, we may be in denial for a few days, finding it difficult to believe that our loved one has cancer. Some of us experience anger, feeling that the diagnosis is not fair. We may bargain with ourselves, promising that we’ve change our behavior or do something better if only God will spare our loved one.

But reality sets in, and although we feel sad and distressed, caregiving takes precedence, and we adjust to the new reality that our loved one has cancer. If we’re fortunate, our loved one will respond to treatment, and our nightmare will become a thing of the past.

Receiving Bad News

Unfortunately, not everyone responds to treatment or their cancer recurs and the new treatments don’t work. This bad news is a difficult time for the patient and their loved ones. Some people experience a profound sense of sadness that may be as deep and distressing as when their loved one dies.

One of the better aspects of having cancer is that our medical teams have experience to help us through our grief and loss. Hospice care is available for any patient who has advanced cancer with a life expectancy of less than six months. Hospice care focuses on symptom relief for the patient and emotional support for family members. Some patients receive hospice care at home. Others may choose a special hospice center. Hospice care is available at nursing homes too. Hospice care includes grief and bereavement counseling for the patient and their family members.

The decision to accept hospice care is gut-wrenching for both patients and family members. Patients may be reluctant to accept hospice care. They may believe that it means that they are “giving up.” Family members, too, may need time to adjust to the news, but most patients and family members are grateful that they chose hospice care.

Every family situation is different as they process the impending death of a family member. It’s important to respect and honor your loved one’s wishes regarding end-of-life care.


The Phases of Grief

We begin to experience grief as soon as we learn that our loved one is not going to survive their cancer. And grief extends well after the death of our loved one. Don’t be surprised if you feel a myriad of emotions and feel like your emotions are a roller-coaster ride of feelings.

Anticipatory Grief. Grief begins with the realization that our loved one is dying. Feelings include fear, dread, depression and wondering how we will be able to carry on after the loss of our loved one. This is also the time to wrap up “unfinished” business, including expressing love or asking forgiveness. If our loved one feels up to talking, reminiscing over good times from the past may help the patient and their family find acceptance of the inevitable. Loved ones need to ensure that that their anticipatory grief is not too much for the patient to handle. Loved ones don’t want to cause any more sadness or worry. It’s possible that you may not feel anticipatory grief — you may have found peace of mind and acceptance in the short term.

Normal Grief. These feelings occur immediately after the death of our loved one. Behaviors include crying, sobbing, shock, disbelief or emotional numbness. Some people are stoic, trying to be strong for other family members. Other people sob openly or for long periods. Grief is experienced differently among family members and friends. The spouse may feel particularly anxious over the prospect of living alone. Loss of appetite and insomnia are common. Returning to one’s job or normal activities may be impossible early in the grieving process. Memory loss may occur too – some family members may be unable to remember the events on the day of the funeral. Some loved ones have nightmares or panic attacks.

Complicated Grief. Some people don’t appear to feel sufficient grief or seem distressed enough while other mourners are unable to resume living again. The circumstances of a person’s death can influence the way we grieve. If our loved one is elderly and has lived a full life and was in pain and discomfort before their death, it may be easier to accept our loss and resume daily activities. But if our loved one is younger or passes away more quickly than anticipated, we may experience an extended period of depression and sadness. Studies show that men are more likely to be depressed and suffer health problems after the death of their spouse than women.

Grief in Children. Children experience grief differently than adults. Young parents who die from cancer often leave young children. The surviving parent not only has to cope with their grief but also help their children process the loss of their “Mama” or “Daddy.” Children don’t display the same emotions as adults. They can be sad for a few minutes and then become engaged in playtime, acting almost like nothing happened. This is one of the ways that a child’s mind protects itself from emotions that are too strong for them to handle all at once. Children are more likely to talk about death, even to strangers, as they try to process the concept that a person is not going to come back home. Children have three primary questions about death.

1. Did I do something to cause this?
2. Is this going to happen to me too?
3. Who is going to take care of me?

Moving Forward …

Each person’s grief is different. Some people adjust after a few months and can find joy in living again. Most people find the first year is the most difficult — our birthday, their birthday, our anniversary, every holiday — these special days are poignant reminders that our loved one is gone. Some people avoid other people on these special days because it is too painful to see others carrying on their lives when we are hurting inside so much. Other people try to surround themselves with people and activities to help prevent the empty feeling of loneliness.

Time Heals

There is no right way or wrong way to work through our grief and mourning. Each person experiences grief differently. If you find yourself filled with regret, guilt and depression that won’t go away, consider joining a support group or see a counselor for a few sessions.

We human beings are resilient. Most of us can pick up the broken pieces of our life and put them back together so that we still find meaning in our lives and learn to laugh and experience joy again. Eventually, when our thoughts focus on our lost loved me, we’ll remember the good times and the joy that our relationship generated. We’ll smile over the memories and forget the pain.

Give yourself time. Take small steps to regain the confidence you once had. Life changes when our loved one dies. Although life will never be the same again, life can be good again if we allow others back into our life. Don’t feel guilty when you begin to laugh and smile again. We all do the best that we can do with the circumstances we are given. Consider what your loved one would tell you if you talked to them about feeling guilty over things done or things left undone. Our loved ones would never want to see us suffer needlessly.

Time heals.

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