Dealing With Grief After Cancer
How facing the sorrow and losses that still haunt you can help set you free.
(Cancer survivor and Hope Has Arrived Contributor)
We work hard at many different things in our diverse lives. Perhaps you have a hobby you’re trying to improve yourself at; you even burn the midnight oil to ever tip the scales so slightly. For me, my sophisticated version of procrastination is working hard to find an alternative method to get a job done so the current task can be put off for another day.
However, with grief, working hard to avoid it has never proven victorious. It will chase you; it will pursue you; it won’t let you go. Grief does not have an expiration date. Grief can approach without warning. Grief will haunt us if we refuse to have a heart-to-heart with it.
A helpful quote about dealing with grief
Watchman Nee, the early 20th-century Chinese church leader, said, “To keep our hand on
the plow while wiping away our tears – that is Christianity!”
At first glance, this quote seemingly compartmentalizes grief apart from our faith. However, the point of this quote is the exact opposite. Notice the language of Watchman; he says “hand,” not “hands.”
Regardless of your spiritual belief, I’m convinced the hard work of our life includes the process of grief, and it is an aspect of our faithful work; we work diligently with one hand on the plow while we work within the realities of a fractured world in recognizing the honesty of our tears.
If I’m completely honest, there have been many times when tears have run down my face amid a hard day’s work that has gone unrecognized. Perhaps even foolishly, my tears were mislabeled as sweat from my hard work, a lack of sleep, or tears of empathy for another. I have often ignored the fact that these were tears of my grief. How do we respond to this recognized and now identified grief?
Grief is deep sorrow, often caused by someone’s death. But there is also a much broader category of grief, or intense sorrow, that includes disappointments, losses and changes that result from hardships, including facing a long-term illness like cancer.
While many of the principles about facing grief apply to both, for the purposes of this article, I am mainly talking about the latter—the personal losses and sorrows that happen from facing a health issue (though these principles are helpful for many situations). For help with the death of a loved one, see The Five Stages of Grief.
In the summer of 2015, I began weeping during a time of prayer with my wife. The good counsel of God revealed something new to me; He showed me that I needed to grieve.
For nearly 13 years, I attempted to bury deep the grief I felt surrounding my battle with stage III testicular cancer. The reasons for hiding my sorrow are many, but not one justifiable; and more importantly, not a single reason for my grief hiding was a desire God wanted for me. He wanted much more; God wanted me to grieve.
To hear more about my cancer story, see the link at the end of this post, “A Tale of Two Cancer Journeys.”
Grief can show up at any moment. Therefore, becoming aware of and labeling it is critical to our health, but knowing what to do with it is also vital. Knowing our grief enables us to sit with it for an undetermined amount of time to reflect on past or even current realities that break our hearts.
The book of Isaiah in the Bible tells us that Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” The Psalms are packed with lament, and the letters of the Apostle Paul frequently address sorrow. Not only is grief real, but it is expected. So, then, how do we grieve?
The key to preparing the way to grieve was to stop. Stop covering up for my grief. Stop carrying the weight of disregard. Stop wearing a mask of “I’m fine.” Stop.
Additionally, taking the intentional time to stop physically allowed me the space to consider what to do with my grief prayerfully.
Taking time to stop
During a cancer diagnosis, or other illness, we are faced with so many unknowns and added components to our lives. The reality is that for most, the life around us (and ourselves) doesn’t stop moving. We must be proactive in making the time, creating the space, and practicing the deliberate art of stopping.
Only because of the grace of God, 13 years later, sitting on a couch with my wife, was I able to grieve.
Here is what I grieved: being surprised with cancer at the age of 21, painful misdiagnosis, countless medical tests, three surgeries, loss of a reproductive organ (orchiectomy), news of metastasis to my lymph nodes, chemotherapy, the loneliness of hours alone during chemotherapy, the weekly shot of bleomycin for three months that left me with flu-like side effects, news of metastasis to my lungs, exhaustion from hospital stays, complicated college years with cancer, and more.
Forms of grief
Of course, grief takes many shapes and sizes.
The grief that comes with a prognosis of fear and uncertainty can carry a varying weight compared to the rearranged plans necessary due to a procedure. Grief from the felt permanence of losing a loved one is quite different than that of financial stress from medical bills.
However, what must be understood is that grief, sorrow, and pain are commonalities among humanity that unite us. To deny grief, then, not only detracts from our humanity and the likeness of Jesus but also potentially severs our opportunity to understand one another in the commonality of grief.
What a blessing it was to grieve these things. In those moments, God was faithful to reveal that this grief process is good. Not only is dealing with grief good, but it is a part of a work that ironically brings great hope. Grief is not meant to be peripheral; grief is genuine and not meant to be ignored.
Conclusion for dealing with grief
Keeping our hand on the plow of life and service includes wiping tears of grief. Having both hands on the plow exclusively all the time is to ignore a portion of not only who we are as people made in God’s image but also an unhealthy attempt to reject reality. Grief can bring forth the fruit of hope-filled tears.
Questions to ponder
This week, I’d like for you to consider pondering these four questions to help you in dealing with grief.
- 1) Are there any circumstances that you need to grieve?
- 2) Are there tears that have gone unrecognized or mislabeled?
- 3) How can I trust in God to grieve where it’s difficult?
- 4) How can I begin the practice of stopping?
To read more about Mikey’s cancer story, see A Tale of Two Cancer Journeys.
For more about dealing with death of loved one see Grief.
For how to begin a relationship with God see Knowing God Personally.