Guest Post: Losing a parent to cancer, Part One

A dear friend of mine has agreed to write a series of posts about losing a parent to cancer. I am grateful for her insight on this particular experience of loss and I am deeply moved by this first post. Whatever your circumstance, I’m sure you will relate to what she has to say here – such an intuitive description of grief. 

About Katie: I am a twenty nine-year-old who loves to inspire and be inspired.  I love that I get to teach for my job.  I currently work in a school for special needs kids, and they remind me to laugh and find the joy in every day.  I think they are amazing.  I live in Calgary with those who know me, support me, and still love me—my husband, my family, and my friends.  This is also the city I grew up in, and I am surrounded by constant memories and reminders of Dad—a bittersweet thing.  Dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer in 2001.  The doctors gave him a timeline of a year and a half, but he took on the challenge and battled the cancer for ten years before he passed away in February 2011.

The thing about writing about the loss of something is that you can’t honestly write about anything until you’ve addressed your own grief and how it has changed you.  This has been particularly hard for me because I don’t want to give the grief that power over me, and so I avoid having to think about it.  I do think about Dad, I do think about the ten years of the ups and downs of cancer, I do think about the hospital and the hospice, and I do think about my family, their strength, and how loss and grief has changed them.  But I’ve avoided addressing “the process” and the change in myself, claiming always that I’m still in the “denial stage”, when really I’m unwilling to truly see myself through the pain and loss.

It’s been just over a year since Dad passed away, and about eleven years since his battle with cancer began.  I’ve been through “the process” dealing with the grief of a parent being diagnosed with cancer.  It’s there I learned the depth of the difference between trust and hope.  But that was an incredibly different grief than learning to live in a world where Dad no longer exists.

The absence of Dad is the weight of the gray cloud that has followed me around for the past year.  My body often grieves better than my mind.  The weight of the missing-ness hits whenever it wants…there is rarely a rhyme or reason.  I can be in the middle of a chore or enjoying a beautiful day. My eyes will start weeping, usually taking my mind a confusing few moments to realize that I am acknowledging the absence of Dad in my world.

I don’t understand the grief.  I do know it has changed me.  My definitions of happiness and joy have changed.  My role in friendships has changed, many friends not knowing what to do with me, me putting up walls to keep others at a safe distance.  How can I expect them to understand me when I don’t even understand me?  I now most often prefer to spend time alone; I can get anxious or angry when I am about to spend time in groups of people.  I hope this is a stage or phase.  Sometimes the “grayness” is too much for me to fix my attention on much else.

Acknowledging the grief is important.  This I have learned.  As much as I despise that word, and as much as I’m cynical about “the process”, the grief is real.  It takes its toll whether you let it or not.  I am learning to live with my unpredictable self, and have hope in knowing that though I have changed, I have not stopped changing and growing.  I’m not stuck here.  This grief may change me, but it will not consume me.  Dad taught me to truly live life, learn well, and to hold on to hope.  And these I still plan to do and do well.

Katie and family
Katie (left) with her dad and sister

Guest Post: Who I Am

I’m really happy – pumped even – to share a post from Kevin Chapman in Afterwards this week!  Kevin works, lives, eats and breathes on Vancouver Island, BC. The occasional thirst for meaning and a loose armchair philosophy inspire him to write on themes that reveal life causations through seemingly apparent natural order – transcendentalist musings. He hopes you read, agree, disagree or at least think about what he has to write. Kevin lost his dad suddenly in 2008 and I thank him for sharing a bit of his experience with us here. 

It’s 1988. I’m sitting shotgun in the old rusty Datsun 510 idling out front of our house, waiting for dad to find his misplaced sunglasses; his infamous routine of running back inside once everything was set to leave.  It could be a forgotten pack of gum, starting the dishwasher, grabbing a comb (he always had one stuffed in the back pocket) but most of the time it was sunglasses. Like clockwork, I sat with the idling car for a short eternity stewing over the promise of actually leaving.

It was my first camping trip. The Datsun was stuffed with brown Woodwards sleeping bags, a dome tent, tarps, fishing rods and tackle. Even at five years old I thought the Datsun was too small a car for such a big camping trip.  Regardless, with his Varnet shades secured, dad dropped the clutch, threw the car into first and we headed west.

. . .

These aren’t the things that come to mind when you get the news your father has passed away. No news compares to hearing, “Your Dad didn’t make it . . . he’s gone.”

“Make what? What are we making? Where has he gone?”

I remember feeling unaffected by the news when it fell, it wasn’t like the movies, I just heard the information about my dad’s death but never actually felt anything. Some call it shock but I argue it’s a complete lack of comprehension – some say they’re one in the same. For me, shock is chopping off one of your fingers by accident and realizing the horror of what just happened. Hearing my dad had died left no immediate sting, horrific idea or emotional pain attached to it, simply because it had never happened before, the concept was foreign. Someone could say my dad had just turned into a tuna fish and it would have elicited the same reaction.  Greif was not in the equation.

The word ‘grief’ never sat well with me, it’s a blanket term that shitty family counselors toss around to help the living negotiate their complex and unexplainable emotions. It assumes comprehension but undermines the relationship, the value, the person, the process and the loss. No one wants to hear, “you’ll be better once you grieve.”

“No, I won’t be better once I ‘grieve.’ I’ll be better once I have my dad back for a night of chicken wings, beer and a Flames game. Dammit.”

I’m not cynical. I think it’s important to have family and community in a time of loss for emotional support and otherwise, but we are supporting each other’s individual loss. That’s the difference. True grieving, like dying, is done alone. No one will have the right words and no one will have the right answer.

. . .

The months following dad’s death, emotional collapse found me in the oddest of places. I could stomach an entire Father’s Day golf tournament or father-son bbq, but put me past the tool aisle in Canadian Tire and I couldn’t keep a dry eye. As much as I put my dad out of my head to get through the days, he inevitably found his way back into my consciousness.  At first, I couldn’t go an hour without being reminded of something; a familiar road we travelled, sports radio, the hamburgers at Safeway.

I’m unsure at what point it happens, but when the mind begins accepting the idea that someone is out of your life forever, it starts to introduce memories back in. Almost like a partner trying to regain the trust of an abandoned one, the mind starts to give snapshots of who that person was and what they meant in your life. We’ve all been there, it’s that moment of surrender when you’re actually emotionally secure enough to throw them into a story casually.  We try it on, we get a temperature of our emotional well-being and go from there, and pretty soon we can openly write chapters out of the story of our lives with thanks to the person who we loved and lost, but still lives strong in the narrative of our life.

In realizing a loved one creates the fabric of our character, the prospect of knowing one day we will be a fiber woven into someone else’s thread may give an inkling of context to how this crazy world works; why we are the way we are. Helpless, we are a construction of the influences surrounding us, for better or worse. And in that reflection of character, we have the able mind to interpret the roles of those who shaped us. Perhaps then, ‘grief’ is better known to me as a gift of observation, for in loss we can only truly begin to observe and appreciate one’s life by the impression they’ve left.

Now, knowing the influence of my dad has forever stopped in the days to come, I’m left only with the impressions and traits found in myself. So when I find myself running five minutes late with an idling car out front as I pillage the house in haste for my sunglasses, I stop, smile and remember who I am.

Three generations: Kevin, his Grandpa, and his Dad.