Patching up grief

October 20, 2019

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer changes lives of all the people around the patient, especially that of the family

Patching up grief

I lost the most resilient woman I know to breast cancer - my maternal grandmother. She was a woman who epitomised strength for me; someone who braved the loss of her youngest son and husband within the span of six months and then lost her battle to cancer.

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer is something experienced by the entire family. It changes lives of all the people around the patient - like it did for us. Given the immense challenges and stress they are hit with, it is capable of impacting the stability of a family.

The very definition of our daily routine changed. My mother became the primary caregiver for her mother. I saw my mother - a doctor - juggle work, family and life in general without ever complaining about the emotional stress that she was in. That stress, however, we all could feel because we were all living it. Being a doctor, my mother knew exactly what was happening to her mother and during this process I knew exactly what was happening to my mother.

One of the biggest hindrances in timely diagnosis is the stigma attached to breast cancer. Just the other day, on a TV talk show, a person taunting at the current government termed their cancer awareness-creating attempts ‘hollow antics’ but while doing so avoided using the term ‘breast cancer’. He kept referring to it as ‘blood cancer in women’.

In most instances, breast cancer is not reported in time and there is a string of reasons attached to it. When my grandmother brought it up with my mother, she had already crossed the early-stage diagnosis-mark.

If diagnosed at an early stage, breast cancer is curable and we have success stories of survivors from around the world to prove that.

Cancer is a difficult experience for the individual and the family. Going through the diagnosis and treatment is quite painful both physically and emotionally. With advances in medical technology and modern treatment methods, there are an increasing number of cancer survivors, but there is a long way to go in formally addressing the emotional and psychological impacts associated with it.

Mental health in general is not taken seriously here. It is usually associated with a weak will power and disconnect with religion. The cure is summed up in a few words - toughen up; deal with it; happens to the best of us or snap out of it. Nice sounding hollow words that are practically of zero help.

Caregivers of cancer patients don’t have a weak will. In most cases, you will see no sign of the emotional rollercoaster they get to ride every day and still show up. At times, stringing together daily conversation takes everything they have in them.

Not enough attention is given to the family’s condition. No matter what stage of cancer a patient is suffering from, it always makes a tremendous impact on the family destroying their everyday rhythm and the new dimensions of work-life balance. Most importantly, the biggest impact is facing the threat of loss and your shared future plans. It is a mix of all these emotions you go through. I recall us collectively feeling suspended between fear and hope during my grandmother’s treatment.

My mother used to drive my grandmother to her chemotherapy sessions. At times, I would accompany them. My grandmother was a very lively person and naturally, I attached those traits permanently with her personality. As a teenager, I recall my grandmother’s post-chemo weakness. She would remain quiet for a very long stretch of time - an active person just going quiet. When you witness such drastic changes in someone close, it does something to you.

Caregivers of patients don’t have a weak will. In most of the cases, you will never see the emotional rollercoaster they get to ride every day and still show up. At times stringing together daily conversation takes everything they have in them. With everything going on they, too, have needs which are not always possible to fulfill, and they get it. However, the biggest favour you can do is to empathise and not sympathise. These are two very different things and sadly, the focus in our society is mostly bent towards the latter and that adds to the sting.

Most of them just want to have a chance to get external support where they can speak about their own problems, to vent their emotions, pain, frustrations and dread of impeding loss. They need a safe space where they can shed the brave and optimist masks that they wear for the patient’s moral support. A lack of this safe space causes long-term damage and goes beyond the loss of a loved one.

Several studies have now shown that the emotional strain is more burdensome than the actual activities associated with providing medical care and the financial stress that comes with a disease like cancer. Links have also been found between chronic stress and aggravating impact on an individual’s immune system, leading to one’s own physical and mental health issues.

While we are making progress on the medical front, there are other relevant factors that need to be incorporated in the system. Most importantly, when it comes to breast cancer the first and foremost thing is to shed the stigma. This can help in early diagnosis and treatment. Stigma around the caregivers’ mental health will help them survive the stress and in the case of a loss of a loved one, help deal with it.

Also read: Of crumbling healthcare structures

Japanese have a kind of reverence for the art of mending. A broken bowl would be valued precisely because of the exquisite nature of how it was repaired. This tradition is referred to as Kintsugi, meaning to "to patch with gold". Often, we try to repair broken things in a way so as to conceal the repair, and make it good as new or just like it used to be - a flawed concept. One can never be the same again - it is not a normal phenomenon. The Japanese understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to just-like-it-used-to-be and opted for a better-than-new-aesthetic. They understood that an artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself.

This is the transformation idea that needs to be adopted for healing. Be it surviving a life-threatening disease or healing from grief. The snap-out-of-it attitude is not healthy as one can never be the same again, and that is not really a bad thing. Understanding life’s fragility, experiencing loss lets people understand what is really important in life making them more accepting and empathic towards other people. Instead of badgering them to be the same again, help them expand the circle of empathy and we might have an atmosphere where others can find the support they need when life throws a few rough balls at them.


The writer is a digital communications and marketing professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif

Patching up grief