Not long ago, I received a text message from one of my friends who had just found out that her cousin was diagnosed with cancer. Heartbreaking. I can’t stand news like that. I immediately go in to this deep, deep place of myself. Where all I want to do is wrap that person up, and tell them there is nothing else to say other than “This fucking sucks. I’ve got you.”
I have a podcast episode coming up with one of the loveliest people on planet Earth where we chat all about grief and the loss of our fathers. During this conversation, we also hit the topic of being there for others who find themselves in your same, shitty club. It’s so easy for us to be distracted by our own pain. Especially when someone approaches us with theirs. Our instinct may be to curl up into a ball and focus solely on what it is that hurts us and fall back into our own suffering. We think “that will feel good, to drown in my own agony some more. There’s no way I can be there for this person.”
You’d be surprised.
The moment you decide that you can in fact hold space for someone who just joined said shitty club (because truly, you can) you’ll find that you not only have a companion to feel the heaviness with, but you can start to heal yourself in the process. This is what happened to me. About 3 years after I lost my dad, a childhood friend of mine lost hers to cancer as well. I remember feeling like I could throw up at the thought of anyone else going through something like this — I wanted to take it away from them instantly. But I knew all I could do is to offer up my presence. To honor their pain and to let them know they weren’t alone.
To let them know that they had an army behind them.
Through helping them through their pain, I was able to help myself through some of my own.
So when my friend asked me if I had any recommendations for how she could support her cousin through chemotherapy, I won’t lie to you — my heart sank. I was immediately flooded with so many memories of my own dad going through chemo and it chipping away at his life bit by bit, dose by dose. I was flooded with some anger around my reality, some deep heavy sadness, and an initial longing to maybe just… not answer the text and wallow in what I had been through — what my family had been through.
And then, just like that, I snapped out of my own selfish universe and knew that the way to release pain for other people, and to release pain for myself, was to help in any way that I could. That was my mission – my calling, if you will.
Grief is oh so real and all consuming.
I feel strongly about breaking the “rules” when it comes to handling the grieving process. First comes shock, then denial, then anger, the sadness, then acceptance…
Um, no. First comes sadness, maybe some shock, maybe some more sadness, fear, fear, fear, maybe some anger where you punch a wall, then deep depression, more holes in walls, some more shock, denial but you’re still punching holes, deep sadness with some shock in there, anger, sadness, shock, depression, shock, anger, depression… you get my point, right?
Grief is not some system that you graduate from one day.
Despite what every book will tell you, it’s not a system of steps (step 1, step 2, step 3…) or phases (phase 1, phase 2, phase 3) that you complete and graduate from. This is not a course. This is a painful reality — a life flip, a nightmare, a heartbreak. Humans are far more complex to be able to go through something as impactful as watching someone they love be in pain, or losing someone they love in a specific order.
I hate to break it to you, but that just isn’t how it works.
You’ve got to swim through some really thick mud, maybe drown a little and gasp for air, and realize that your journey towards healing will not look like the person next to you. Even if you have siblings — you’ll find that your experience is so different than his/hers, too. Own that, honor that, and honor your process.
PS: I should note that grief may occur during treatment as well. My grief started the moment I found out my dad was sick. There’s a misconception that grief can only occur or is worth being defined if there is a loss. Not true.
So today, in case any of you are going through this soul busting, heart wrenching and yet, incredibly powerful and emotional experience, I wanted to put this blog post out into the universe just in case you might need it.
HOW TO HELP A FRIEND OR A LOVED ONE GOING THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY
Be open & honest:
The utmost important thing to remember is that you are 100% allowed to give yourself permission to express your feelings throughout this journey. You will be so much better off if you go into this knowing full well that you, too, are also experiencing pain and anguish. No, it may not be cancer, but your pain and emotions matter, too. I’m really proud of myself for never being worried about expressing my fears and sadness to my dad.
I was always really honest with him, and made sure to come from a gentle place – as not to scare him into deep thoughts of possible mortality. By being honest and open with him when I felt like I needed to, my dad and I had some of the best conversations that I’ll take with me forever. I got to say things to him that I may have otherwise kept to myself — today, I have no regrets of things left unsaid to my father before he died, because throughout his entire 4 year journey with cancer, I was an open book.
The flip side to this, is that it is important to seek outside help. Whether that’s a friend who’s gone through a similar thing or a therapist, don’t shy away from getting the help that you need to get through this life altering thing. You might be wondering why I’m focusing on you so much when the statement above is how to help a loved one who’s going through chemo — well, here’s why:
If you aren’t somewhat steady or emotionally stable, you can’t be of service to your loved one. You can show up, you can do the work, hold the hands, feed and bathe, whatever it is that’s needed of you — but there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to provide the emotional support that is so incredibly needed.
Listen to your emotions:
Because I was so in tune with my emotions and I was able to channel them in a healthy way, I was able to be there for my dad in the most profound way — in whatever way he needed; whatever way my mom needed. I remember when we first found out about his stage 4 cancer and we were starting to tell friends and family, so many people would say: “Keep him laughing. Love and laughter helps.” You literally want to roll your eyes — you do, but then you start to embrace that advice, and you see that it actually works.
My dad was a medical miracle for a while there. They were so perplexed by his condition that students would be in his hospital room or popping into his doctor appointments all the time to learn. (Quite honestly, I hated this when it was happening, but now I’ve learned to respect it as it could potentially help someone else down the road) His doctors would soon tell us that we were a huge part of his ability to keep rebounding — the love and the support that we offered him day in and day out was invaluable.
(Yet another reason to keep yourself in alignment as best you can.)
Some ideas, if you need them:
We followed Ellen DeGeneres on Twitter and would read him the Monday Joke of the Day each week.
One of my sisters downloaded this app that makes hilarious (sometimes gross) noises, and when it would be really quiet, she’d just push the button and we’d all end up bursting out laughing. Seeing my dad with tears in his eyes from laughing so hard is a visual I’ll have engrained in my brain forever.
Make them laugh:
We wore t-shirts that said “Jim’s Cool” on the front and “I know Jim!” on the back and created a song that we performed (and recorded) for him. Well, more of a skit really, where we each had a part that we wrote and then sang, followed by a chorus. It was hilarious, and something I still watch from time to time. I remember the entire floor of the hospital getting such a kick out of it, and seeing my dad’s face of shock and hilarity was the best.
For my dad’s 63rd (and final) birthday, I asked our rather large extended family and all of my parent’s friends to record 3 reasons they loved my dad. I made a video montage of everyone talking about him in that light, and played the DVD for him. I recorded his thank you speech about the video at his final birthday dinner, and I literally watch that speech at least once a month. Here it is if you’d like to hear it, too.
REALITIES OF CHEMOTHERAPY
You may have somewhat of a gist in regards to the realities of chemotherapy. All I can really do is tell you what I know from my experience. While most movies and TV shows show people losing their hair every time they have cancer, we learned that this isn’t always the case. There are so many different strands of chemotherapy that are given depending on the cancer at hand. Some may let you keep your hair while taking something else from you. My dad had to go through a few different kinds.
The first one made him lose most of his hair.
He had a really light peach fuzz on his head and lost his mustache. Then another which made his hair grow in really strange directions. His eyelashes would grow down and curl under to the point where my mom would have to cut them. His arm hair was more in spiral form.. things like that.
Another made him blister so incredibly bad.
All over his head, his hands. They would crack and bleed constantly to the point where he would have to wear bandaids on every finger and sometimes even gloves. He would have waves of feeling okay, then waves of feeling so incredibly sick. There were a lot of late nights to help ease the sickness; of helping my mom get him from point A to point B due to weakness. A lot of tending to wounds that he would get from his chemo treatments (and his radiation).
The point is that while you may not know exactly what side effects your loved one will experience, discomfort is the only constant. It causes you to be incredibly cold; to have a majorly decreased appetite. You’ll endure nausea. It may cause you to lose your hair and to possibly suffer some bruising and blistering.
WHAT TO GIVE SOMEONE GOING THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY
The actual act of chemotherapy is generally a long process. Depending on the diagnosis, it can last anywhere from 2-4 hours (we were always around the 4 hour mark) So it’s important to keep in mind that they’re sitting for a really long time.
Here are some things you can give that can keep them occupied:
-Your company (free, and the best thing you can give them by far)
-Magazine subscriptions from their favorite publication and something new to peak their interest
-Depending on who it is, some uplifting beach reads or mindless short stories to get lost in
-A journal for them to free write
-A sketchbook so they can draw
-Meditational coloring books
-Fill their phone with uplifting podcasts
A thoughtful idea:
Have friends and family write a note each month. Put them in a box and collect them until the next appointment. This is not only an act of love (x 5,000), but beyond encouraging for someone who’s fighting for their life, and most likely, exhausted from doing so.
Keep in mind that chemotherapy wards are freezing in general, but for the person getting chemotherapy through their IVs? It makes them 10 times colder.
Here are some things you can give them to keep them warm at each appointment:
-Cashmere or wool socks
-A designated “chemo” blanket. My dad had one and I gratefully inherited it after he passed.
-Design a quilt with photos of loved ones
-If they lose their hair due to their mix of chemotherapy, go on Etsy and order several hats for them to keep on rotation
-A warm neck pillow
Chemotherapy Gift Tip:
Try to avoid anything that’s scented when it comes to things you give them. Not only can their sense of smell be super sensitive during this time, but it’s good to be mindful of the other patients they’re sharing space with.
A few other ideas that we would give my dad during his appointments:
-A BPA-free, insulated water bottle (chemotherapy can make you really thirsty, but especially with my dad having radiation in his head. This made it to where he was having to drink water constantly) Due to the quantity, make sure to get one that’s safe so they’re not digesting (more) toxic crap. The chemo is enough.
-Videos from loved ones. Being able to sit down next to them and go through video messages and see the faces of the people they love — you cant go wrong.
WHAT TO SAY TO SOMEONE GOING THROUGH CHEMO
This is kind of what I was talking about before; when I mentioned that I was always very open and honest with my dad about how I was feeling. But more than that, I never stopped telling him how loved he was. I never skipped the chance to tell him how I really felt. Or how grateful I was. I took time to share my favorite memories with him, and to tell him how proud I was of him.
I also never took away his validation to feel defeated.
Much like going through cancer is exhausting, I imagine the same goes for having to be positive all the time. To feel like if you’re not smiling or saying “I’ve got this”, you’re disappointing and scaring the shit out of everyone around you. I found real value in giving him the space to just be tired, to say that he was angry, scared, frustrated. I found relief when he would let himself go through those emotions out loud, rather than keeping them built up internally. So while yes, there are so many things you can say to someone going through chem; for example, — “I love you”, “I’m so proud of you”, “I hate that you’re going through this”, “I’m right alongside you”, etc…
Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is ask the right questions. Let them do the talking, sans judgement.
It’s insane to properly try to articulate how much I miss my dad. Four years later and I swear to you that at times, it can feel like it all happened just yesterday. It’s so fresh and painful, so sweet and lovely, so complicated and complex, and so dark and beautiful. The journey, the heartache, the memories, the conversations.. there’s no masking it one way or the other. Because while some days I’ll be cursing the universe for taking him away from us, other days I think “I’m so damn lucky that I had him for as long as I did, in the way that I did.” And when I write these posts in hopes of helping any of you who may find yourself in the shitty cancer club, I start to feel whole again — it’s painful to revisit, but it’s more painful to pretend like it never happened.
So thank you for letting me show up here to talk about it, and thank you for trusting me to guide you, should you need it.