Cancer Tips Life

Five tips to manage grief

For the past 19 years, this holiday week has been tough for me. My dad died from cancer 19 years ago this week. And for 19 years, my grief has ebbed and flowed. In that time, I’ve learned these five tips to manage grief so wanted to share with you.

Growing up Independence Day was a big deal in my family. We lived on a wonderful street in a wonderful community. Our neighbors were great friends to my parents, my sisters and me. My parents took turns hosting neighborhood gatherings, progressive dinners and more. On Independence Day, many households gathered together to celebrate with food, swimming, fireworks and laughter. I loved this day for many reason, mostly because we were all together having fun, making memories.

Remembering so many ‘lasts’

For those who don’t know about my dad, here’s a quick recap: My dad was diagnosed with last stage multiple myeloma, a rare blood/plasma cancer, barely a year after my bone cancer diagnosis. For a few months, we were in treatment at the same time (my mom is my heroine for many reasons, including managing that!). We thankfully found an amazing doctor who kept us one step ahead of his cancer for six years. That courageous man went through two bone marrow transplants, two heart valve replacement surgeries and so much more. He fought to live.

Nineteen years ago, we celebrated Independence Day together at my sister and brother in law’s home. My dad insisted on coming, despite being weak and tired. He had been on dialysis for a while now, his kidneys shutting down from the years of treatment. For six years, he fought so hard. His body was wearing down. But we enjoyed that holiday together, with family and friends. He smile so much. It was his last holiday.

A few days later, he wanted to discuss stopping dialysis. His quality of life had drastically diminished. He wanted to live on his own terms. We had our last family dinner with him sharing laughs and loving moments. I had my last few conversations with him. He kept reminding me of the positive impact that I could have on the world, the difference I could be, how proud he was. I got my last hug. Then he decided to stop dialysis and barely 24 hours later, we said good-bye to one of the sweetest, strongest, courageous people I’ve ever met. I watched my dad take his last breath on this Earth.

Managing life without my dad

Over the past 19 years since his death, my grief has been at times unbearable. I went through bouts of survivor’s guilt, wondering if I caused his death when he said he prayed that he would take my bone cancer from me so I could live a gloriously long life. I’ve since come to terms that I didn’t cause his cancer, nor did he (read about how I overcame guilt of his death). I know that he wouldn’t want me to waste precious moments on those type of thoughts. (Survivor’s guilt can be tough to navigate – read this blog post for tips.)

I’ve learned, through time and lots of counseling, to channel that grief into action. He wanted me to share his story to help make a difference. So I do. I’ve attended meetings and spoken at events across the country and raised thousands of dollars to help other cancer survivors, push for improved access to care, help fund cancer research and more. It’s my way to honor him (and also embrace my passion for making the world a better place for all). And in some ways, it makes me feel closer to him. Because he loved helping others (I’m so blessed that my sisters and I were raised in a home full of gratitude and commitment to helping others).

But grief still comes. I’m crying as I type these words. I miss him. Every freakin’ moment, I miss him. At times, I get angry that he’s not here – to provide his great advice and his protective hugs, play his practical jokes, share moments with my mom (that man LOVED my mom), watch his grandchildren (and now great-grandchildren) grow into beautiful humans. I loathe that disease which has taken so much from my life.

Thankfully, most days I can smile and laugh at the memories. Know that he is proud of how I’ve overcome the many challenges that I’ve faced, including three cancers.

You’re not alone in your feelings

One of my favorite family pictures.

I share all of this because I am sure that you too have felt grief. Maybe from the death of a loved one or friend. Even the loss of pet. Perhaps a dream you carried for a long. Grief comes in many forms. So I want to share these five tips to manage grief to hopefully help you find comfort and peace too.

The relationship to a person who died can make grief vary too. While my mom and I both dearly love my dad, our grieving journeys as a spouse and daughter are also different. But we are still able to support each other. Everyone handles grief differently.

Also, know that grief is a natural feeling. It can come from many different situations, not just the loss of a loved one. A relationship ending, job loss, retirement, miscarriage, loss of a pet, financial instability and more can all cause grief. For the sake of this post, the tips below mostly focus on bereavement, grief and mourning experience following the death of someone important to you. But you may also notice these resonate in other areas of your life.

Five tips to manage grief:

Allow the feelings to come.

Loss can trigger intense and unexpected emotions. These don’t go away if you ignore them. Grief is unpredictable. Acknowledge these emotions and also try to embrace other emotions, like gratitude for knowing this person and the positive memories that you have. Please seek professional support if you feel that these emotions aren’t easing up/getting worse or you feel that you are stuck in despair or other emotions.

Everyone grieves differently.

I think this is an important reminder for all. The stages of grief (typically denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) may come in different orders and time than others. Some people may want to start clearing a closet/home right away, while others may hold on to possessions a while longer. Some individuals may date shortly after losing a spouse, while another may not be ready for years. There is no wrong way to grieve! So be patient and thoughtful with yourself (and please don’t judge others in their grief process!).

Seek support.

There are many different ways to get support through grief. Don’t try to manage it on your own. Let yourself be surrounded in caring support by family and friends. See a counselor and/or join a bereavement support group.

Take care of yourself.

It’s easy to stop taking care of yourself while grieving. I barely slept during the weeks following my dad’s death due to feeling overwhelmed at the loss and worrying about my family. My mom finally stepped in when she saw the physical toll it was taking on me, and I’m forever grateful to her. Some good coping techniques include:

  • exercise
  • relaxation techniques (meditation, yoga)
  • journaling
  • engaging in hobbies that you enjoy
  • eating well
  • getting enough sleep

Celebrate your loved one.

A loving way to honor my dad

There are so many ways to celebrate and remember your loved one! Beyond a funeral or memorial service, you can create special moments and traditions that keep the person woven into your life. I add many of these ideas into remembering my dad. Some examples:

  • Continue to do things that you did together
  • Embrace traditions with other family and friends
  • Volunteer and/or donate to a cause in their name
  • Do something special or meaningful to them on their birthday (funny story: my dad was a fan of Budweiser beer, in the bottle, no glass. My sisters and I often would meet at one of his favorite restaurants for one Budweiser beer (even though it’s not our favorite, ha) on the anniversary of his death or birthday. Even this many years later, many of my friends send me pictures of them drinking a Budweiser in honor of my dad!).
  • Do a simple gesture, such as lighting a candle in their honor; placing flowers at their grave; reach out to another family member/friend to share a story

Moving on but never forgotten

I hope these five tips to manage grief help you if you’ve experienced the loss of someone you love. Remember that moving on doesn’t mean you have to forget your loved one. The memories will always be a part of us. But be careful not to also get stuck in the past. You are still alive. Honor your loved one, honor yourself, by living for today. Life is a gift.

NOTE: If you feel that you struggle to move beyond the intense grief (and perhaps in depression), please get support.

Have you experienced grief from cancer? Do you have other tips to share? Please share in the comments if you’d like!

Also, please consider sharing this with others who may need the support too!

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