First cancer brings you to your knees. Just the word is like winter. Then, when you come to your senses, you can awaken to the most beautiful spring: though some days are cold and chilly and some are warm and full of light, every single one becomes precious. Each evening I think how that day has been worth a day of my life.
This kind of thinking changes everything. You start noticing things, even the littlest kindness or the pleasure of a good night’s sleep. Cards from friends remind you that you, too, should start sending cards and letting people know how precious they are to you. Coffee tastes better than you ever noticed before, and grandchildren’s hugs are stored in memory, each and every one.
You begin to think of loose ends and an urgency to get important things done instead of putting them off. Some days you feel nearly invincible with energy and confidence; some days seem to have a cloud hanging over them, with worries about how many days there will be, and after teaching your children how to live, you begin to imagine that you must also teach them how to be brave and accept mortality.
Some days you feel like a warrior, ready to fight to the end against an invisible and wily enemy; other days you feel like befriending cancer, learning its ways, only to find out that it is not good at compromising.
The days of scans that periodically mark time are a test. Crawling up into the MRI machine you know that an all seeing eye is about to give your directions for the next step in the journey. This past week I crawled into the machine after my first year, and it saw nothing. “no evidence of malignancy going on.” This is the best spring ever, not just because I can breathe again for awhile, but because new eyes have come to me during this winter and a love for life that passes my previous understanding. To all of you who are somewhere on this journey, keep looking for the gift. It is bought with a great price, which makes it priceless.
Recently, “Prolonged grief disorder” was added to the DSM 5—the diagnosing psychotherapist’s “bible.” The timeline of six months is often regarded as a turning point in grief; if symptoms strongly persist, a diagnosis of depression may be considered. The prolonged grief diagnosis stretches the normalcy of persistent symptoms to a year. Nevertheless, the diagnosis is somewhat controversial. The question is when does grief become a “disorder” and how long are grief symptoms considered to be a part of the normal healing process rather than becoming a “disorder” or mental illness.
In practice and in experience I have come to see grief as an adjustment to a change that shakes one to the core. In profound losses, a kind of anesthetic shock can seem like a numbness protecting the mind while reality begins to seep into full consciousness. This brief period allows us to make decisions that must be made in the moment and to do the next necessary thing. Some are misjudged as “not feeling” because there may be no tears at this point. It is like having a major body injury and at first not even feeling it.
As the reality of loss begins to reveal itself in a myriad of ways, the mind begins the process of understanding and questioning and finding meaning. An energy that looks like anger distracts as we try to make some sense of what has happened while it makes no sense to us. The next season seems more identifiable as tears and sorrow melt into our consciousness, like a giant iceberg in the chest. This is the season that looks like clinical depression. There may be difficulty in making decisions, little energy or motivation, difficulty sleeping, isolation, and irritability. Like a bodily injury healing, the mind and body and spirit begin the first stages of knitting our lives back together. This takes as long as it takes.
These days as we witness the Ukrainian tragedy, we share in the experience of their grief and observe them moving through unimaginable loss. All of the stages are playing out for the world to see. We send support as we are able, and know at the same time, that it will take a very long time for them to put their lives back together in some way again. It is not measurable in months. There is no timeline for grief other than waiting for the coming of hope and those who encourage us that in time winter lets go and gives way year after year into spring.
The importance of a time out during a close basketball game, the spring break, a vacation, even just the weekend—all of these are as important as the spaces between the notes in a musical score. Without taking time outs—life can feel like a jumbled mess without focus and clarity. The time we take to step back is as important as the stepping forward.
The need to call a time out in our daily lives is signaled by burnout and boredom and fatigue. Sometimes our bodies remind us that a time out needs to happen, and those who may have felt too busy to take a vacation suddenly find themselves being faced with a mandatory time out for a physical condition that will call its own time out.
Nature tries to help us with periods of darkness and light to stop ceaseless activity—to sleep. The question around daylight savings time is coming into focus as we realize how the complications of turning our clocks forward and back affect our awake and sleep patterns. Making time for more working hours may defeat its own purpose in actually decreasing productivity during our waking hours.
The wisdom of sleep (naps included) is put so beautifully by Shakespeare as “sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” Our worries and fears and emotional fragility often seem to lessen or even dissolve after a good rest. Being able to let ourselves take our time outs and give in to rest is good medicine for mental and emotional wellness. Where are your “raveled sleeves” that signal a need for a break? How will you address the frenetic pace of life and call a time out? Begin to dream of it!
Have you ever driven in fog so heavy that you had only the white line on the right side of the road to guide you? That happened to me a number of years ago on a country road that did not even offer tail lights from cars in front of me for guidance. I was in it before I knew how bad it was going to be. I thought of turning around to return from where I had come, but there were ditches on both sides of a narrow shoulder, and I couldn’t even judge if it was safe to try and back up. I kept thinking maybe I would drive out of it. It was 9:30 at night. I thought that when my exit came to get on a more traveled road, things would get better. They did not.
In fact, I had to stay on the road as I could not see the exit clearly. I knew eventually this road would lead me to St. Joseph, Missouri, so I stayed the course until eventually I began to see city lights ahead of me and could turn off to find a place to stay for the night.
What helped the most was an unexpected phone call from one of my sons. When I explained to him I could not talk because I was trying to find my way out of fog, he reminded me that if I “took it slow” and kept my eye on the white line of the right side of the road, I would be okay. He stayed on the line with me for many miles.
Right now, life may seem very foggy with Covid still unresolved, uncertain supply chains, and the world on the verge of a major conflict. Gone is the comfort zone when can drive full speed ahead, having some idea of what to expect and when. Now we are in the “following the white line” zone, choosing to believe that growth is happening and avoiding the pitfall of panic. Living in the growth zone requires nerve to keep inching ahead and finding voices of encouragement as we do the next right thing and wait for city lights. Comfort zone, growth zone, panic zone. We have the ability to name it.
Once again I am writing from Chicago. I am looking out from high windows at the Chicago River and beyond that into a misty blue expanse of Lake Michigan. From this vantage point, surrounded by tall skyscrapers, I feel perspective. It has been a Chicago family Christmas in what to me is my second home, and we have treasured the time together like never before. We have all survived illness and the threat of Covid and realize how lucky we are to have this time.
The holidays are often a time for returning home. It is not easy for everyone to do that. Some actually have no original home to return to. Some are by circumstance prevented from physically returning there. Some find themselves being defined as who they were in the past instead of who they have become and cannot find “home” there. For some of us, returning home is a reminder of where we began and how deeply those earliest experiences have shaped our psychological and spiritual landscapes. Much therapy hearkens back to those beginnings, sometimes for correction and understanding and forgiveness.
We all need a “second home” where we can let down and be who we truly are, right now, at this time. The home does not depend on bricks and mortar but in an environment that nurtures us. We may find home in the eyes of family or friends. We may even find that home is wherever we find ourselves, knowing that we are enough. Home is where we start from and also where we go to for perspective and direction.