New Brunswick, N.J., 24, 2020 –August 30th is National Grief Awareness Day, a day created to raise awareness about the many ways we as humans cope with grief. While grief is often associated solely as a reaction to bereavement, grief is often experienced after any loss. Grief and loss are natural responses to change and fundamental parts of the human experience. Cancer patients and their friends and family experience grief and loss around the cancer experience, and even more so now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grief affects cancer patients. When we lose things important to our sense of self, we naturally grieve. From changing lifestyle habits and roles to frequent visits to the doctor, many patients feel grief over the loss of their normal pre-cancer diagnosis routine. No matter what type of cancer an individual is diagnosed with, significant changes result. Changes to appearance, relationships, body integrity and loss of independence cause a strong range of emotions associated with grief. Cancer comes with many little losses, often ones hard to articulate. Adjusting to these numerous changes and challenges can be difficult to say the least. Remember, feeling anxious and/or depressed is a normal reaction to grief. It is important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 global pandemic has created even more uncertainty and potential feelings of fear, powerlessness, anger and distress among all of us.
Grief affects families and loved ones of cancer patients. During a loved one’s cancer journey, spouses, partners, family members, and close friends are also likely to experience a sense of loss while adjusting to a new way of life. Some experience the transformation into a cancer caregiver role and feel the loss of their own independence. Running errands, preparing meals, providing physical care and/or driving a sick loved one to and from treatment are all acts of loving compassion; even so, these tasks, may take a toll on caregivers. Many people experience anticipatory grief, this is grief that actually occurs before a loss and it is common among caregivers and family members of those with cancer. Ambiguous grief refers to grief related to losses that are ongoing. Sometimes the cancer patient is still the person you love, though you miss the person they used to be and the relationship you had with them.
Grief affects cancer survivors. Grief may persist and present in various forms as an individual faces life after treatment as a cancer survivor. The cancer experience does not end when active treatment ends. There are often lingering feelings of loss and sadness associated with cancer diagnosis, reminders of sometimes-painful experiences with treatment and recovery and adjustment to the potentially residual physical and mental changes that have occurred.
Grief is normal and communication about it can be too. Start the conversation, share how you are feeling; you might just be surprised how common your feelings are. There is no single way to treat cancer and likewise there is no distinct way to cope with the feelings of grief that may come along with it. You do not have to go it alone when dealing with grief, talking about it can help.
Remember, even the strongest individuals need help at times. Do not hesitate to seek assistance with grief when dealing with cancer. For additional information and resources, visit https://cinj.org/education/grief-and-loss. Additionally, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey offers a wide variety of support services for cancer patients and their families. Learn about our Patient Support Services program.
Rosemarie Slirzewski, MSW, LCSW, is the interim director of social work at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
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