“I believe that grief is part of the cancer journey because loss is part of the cancer journey,” says Lauren Garvey, LPC, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “This loss represents an end to what’s been familiar and the fact that you have to adapt to a new, often unwanted, reality. It can be a tangible loss, such as the loss of a loved one, your hair or breasts. Or it can be a less tangible loss, such as your sense of normalcy or an aspect of your identity.”
Garvey says many people describe their “new normal” as a feeling that they have walked through a door that has closed behind them and they realize they will never walk back. Experiencing loss and walking through new, different doors can be both challenging and disorienting.
How people experience and express grief
“Grief comes from a French word that means heavy burden,” she says. “People experience and express this heavy burden in a wide range of ways.”
Grief can include feelings of:
It can also manifest in physical ways, such as:
Muscle soreness or tightness
Maladaptive coping strategies
Garvey says we all cope with grief through both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Adaptive coping strategies help you function in a healthier and more sustainable way, while maladaptive strategies temporarily relieve stress, but don’t address the underlying issue.
Maladaptive behaviors include numbing activities, such as excessive:
Food or alcohol consumption
These activities aren’t necessarily unhealthy for you in moderation, but in excess, they can distract you from moving forward to a place of well-being.
Healthy ways to cope with grief
“Research shows that there are ways we can care for our mind and body that can help us achieve a more balanced state to process emotions,” says Garvey. “You can empower yourself as an active participant in your grief management. This includes regular movement, nutrition, stress management and social support.”
Seek social support. “It is so important to acknowledge that you’re not alone by finding other people who have been through loss and experienced grieving,” says Garvey. Cancer Wellness at Piedmont offers several support groups at each of its locations.
Give yourself grace. “I think it’s important to care for yourself mentally and emotionally by giving yourself grace and self-compassion,” she says. “If you need to cry, cry. Allow yourself to have time, space and support.”
Practice self-care. “Physical and emotional self-care looks different for everyone,” she says. “Act out of love for yourself. When you are having a tough day, ask ‘How can I care for myself today?’” This could mean a bubble bath, a massage, spending a few hours alone to process your feelings, going for a walk or reading a good book.
Get moving. Exercise stimulates your lymphatic system, releases feel-good endorphins and prevents muscle stiffness. Yoga, walking, stretching or Pilates are all wonderful, gentle workouts that can help you feel better mentally and physically.
Spend time in a nurturing environment. Whether you spend time at Cancer Wellness or with family and friends, “we have a natural tendency to heal and return to a state of wellness if we are in a nurturing environment,” she says.
Take your time. “Grief is on your own timetable,” she says. “Not everyone will understand what you are going through, but do what’s best for you. You need adequate support and space to process and explore your feelings.”
Honor the loss in your life. “If you are living with unwanted reality, there are ways to make it more manageable and even enjoyable,” says Garvey. “While you’ll never forget your loss, over time, it is possible to move forward with a new perspective on life. When our perspective shifts, we can discover new things about ourselves and find new strengths. While you can’t walk back through that door to the day before you got your diagnosis, you can honor your grief while also finding a way to move forward and live your best life on the other side of the door.”
The difference between normal grief and depression
If your persistent feelings are affecting your activities of daily living, you may have signs of depression. It is not uncommon for someone who has received a cancer diagnosis to experience symptoms of clinical depression. It is important to communicate how you feel because it is treatable.
“If you are unable to take care of yourself, leave the house, work or have a relationship with others, it’s a good idea to call a professional counselor for help,” says Garvey. “I also recommend counseling if you have a history of depression, do not feel safe, have feelings of sadness that persist over a long period of time, or you don’t feel that you have a strong support system in your life.”
If you are so overwhelmed with grief that you don’t see a way out and are concerned that you’ll harm yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Learn more about support during the cancer journey.