Grief and Cancer: Ways to Cope with Loss

Grief. It’s something we’ve all dealt with in our lives. Although many only think about this emotion in the context of someone dying, grief can be experienced whenever anything you find valuable is lost — a house, a job, a marriage.

And with a cancer diagnosis, grief is a common emotional roller coaster. Whether the loss you’re experiencing is tangible (a body part or strands of hair) or intangible (loss of independence or sense of yourself), grief can occur during treatment and beyond.

Understanding How Cancer Causes Grief

Experts suggest that you understand your grief in order to take the appropriate steps to manage it.

Sometimes people become frustrated with themselves for grieving and want the process to be over quickly. But try to think of your loss as a wound and your grief as the healing — the bigger the loss the longer the healing process can take.

Many cancer patients experience collateral losses, such as not being able to work or engage in normal activities, having the financial burden of treatment, and more. Because multiple losses and life changes occur in close proximity, grief may continue to grow. Therefore, facing your emotions head on and allowing yourself to grieve will be better for you in the long run.

RELATED: 5 Guidelines for Talking to Your Kids About Cancer

Grieving the Past and the Future After Your Diagnosis

It’s possible to grieve the loss of future events and things we once looked forward to. For some people, cancer treatment can impact the ability to have children, or keep you from attending a wedding or graduation. This is a major component of anticipatory grief, or when someone knows death is likely.

A cancer diagnosis may remind you of other significant losses in your life. Patients often reflect back on a parent or loved one who succumbed to cancer or feel a resurgence of grief for a deceased family member because they want their support during this difficult time.

When you are ill, mortality may be particularly difficult for you to handle. Many people experience the death of a friend or loved one during prolonged cancer treatment, or suffer the loss of a fellow patient that they have met during their cancer journey.

nurse holding hands with patient

The Cancer Grieving Process

Regardless of the type of loss, the tasks of the grieving process are the same.

  • Accept the reality of the loss. Allow yourself space to experience the emotions and pain of grief.
  • Adjust to a world without the thing that you lost.
  • Form a connection to the thing you lost without having it stop you from living your life. Think, “What have I learned, how have I changed, and what can I remember fondly without the pain?”

Unfortunately when it comes to grief, it is not as simple as going through stages. It is a process, and it is normal to experience more acute grief at particular times, such as the first holiday after a diagnosis or death. You may also have triggers that remind you of key moments from cancer treatment. For example, many people experience anniversary grief” when the day or month of their diagnosis or a major surgery occurs — setting off a period of reflection.

Find Support for Cancer Grief

Remember, everyone grieves differently. This can be particularly difficult with a parent or child seem to be at different places in the grieving process. If you’re having trouble managing your grief with cancer, talk to your doctor.

The UPMC Center for Counseling and Cancer Support offers many resources for patients and loved ones dealing with grief. They can also help you find cancer grief support groups. For more information, visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center website  or call 412-623-5888.