Grieving from Cancer and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
APRIL 16, 2021
Yes, it could (almost) always be worse, and most of us are well aware of both our own challenges and the problems other face. I have written before about the similarities of living with cancer and living through the pandemic. As spring begins to sprout around us, we are painfully aware that we have been living this way for a whole year and that better times really and truly seem to be coming.
Don’t rush your body after cancer and don’t rush your life after a year in isolation.
It is time to look back and consider what we have endured. I often describe recovery from cancer as being a kind of PTSD. Yes, most people have some degree of depression and anxiety, but it is more than that. It is taking a deep breath and recognizing how hard the months of treatment have been. I think that many of us, during the weeks and months of surgical recovery, radiation and chemotherapy, just put our heads down and focus on getting through each day. It is only when it is over that we can allow ourselves to feel and process what has happened.
Recovering from the pandemic is going to be like that, too. Similar to physical recovery from cancer, we can’t hurry this along. As more people are vaccinated and time passes, the world will slowly begin to normalize. The pace is out of our control. The impulse to do too much too soon is just like what we feel post cancer. Slow down. Don’t rush your body after cancer and don’t rush your life after a year in isolation.
Cancer takes so much from us. We may lose a body part or temporarily, our hair, but we also lose a basic trust in our health and need to adapt to a changed body, energy level and perspective. Over the months of treatment, we may have lost other important parts of our lives; I have known people who lost their spouses or their jobs and many who have lost friends whom they had believed would be faithful. We have to find a way to live with our new physical and emotional realities, to truly recognize our mortality, and to rebuild and appreciate our lives.
COVID-19 has forced everyone in the world to contend with similar challenges. We have cancelled long-planned trips, postponed weddings, missed graduations and the births of grandchildren, and given up many plans and dreams. We may have lost someone we loved to this terrible disease, and the comforting rituals of grief and mourning have not been available. A staggering 2.6 million people worldwide have died. Anticipated job opportunities vanished, and many of us lost our jobs and our incomes. We could not be with our friends, and our intense human need for connection has gone unmet. We turned inward, as we did during cancer, and found the best ways to care for ourselves and our families.
And then there are all the small losses that can add up to major sorrow. We don’t even realize all the little ways we enjoy our lives. Have you missed browsing in book, clothing or antique stores? Have you missed your usual coffee shop in the mornings, a quick lunch with co-workers or having a pedicure? Have you missed going to the gym or playing on a team? All of us could make a pretty long list of things we have not done for more than year. Our lives have shrunk and been blander; someone described it to me as living in black and white since last March.
We can’t get that time back. Especially people who are living with advanced cancer, other serious illness or old age are acutely aware of a lost year of opportunity. It is important to acknowledge it and to grieve our losses. The loss of something we didn’t have can be just as painful as the loss of something tangible. It is also important to acknowledge that we have come through something unparalleled and very hard.
Years ago, a patient told me this story: She was in the middle of chemo and feeling poorly but forced herself to go out for a walk on a lovely spring day. She stopped to rest on a park bench and watched two very elderly women stroll by. They were holding onto one another, and she heard one say: We did it. We got through another winter.
Yes, we did. All of us.