Mesothelioma Grief: Finding Comfort in Times of Loss
February 4, 2020
I lost my father to mesothelioma in 1993. I sought emotional comfort from friends and loved ones, and I’ll never forget the first time I heard, “the first year is the worst year.”
An older family member said the words in an effort to console me. Such a well-intended sentiment filled my soul with dread. I sought comfort rather ineffectively, from external sources, rather than from within.
Grieving people often reach out to friends, family members and loved ones, searching for relief from the unbearable weight of a heavy heart. It seems the mission to relieve emotional pain is often filled with disappointment.
Embracing grief and finding ways to cope with loss is an empowering and deeply personal internal emotional process.
There is no universal “cure” for the difficult emotions such as sadness, yearning, guilt, anger and loneliness that we associate with loss.
Healing from loss is different for all those who experience it.
Grief in the Mesothelioma Community
Though most people associate it with death, grief doesn’t just arise upon the loss of a loved one.
Often, people in the mesothelioma community first face grief when they can no longer work because of the illness or because they must provide in-home care for a loved one facing cancer.
Overwhelming grief-related feelings affect many cancer patients and their families. These emotions feel invasive and unbearable at times.
Grief encompasses different types of loss, including:
- Loss of a financial or social lifestyle
- Inability to work because of illness
- Changing family roles
There is no quick fix for coping with grief. Managing the emotions that come with loss and changes in daily life requires significant emotional work.
Exploring elements of grief-related emotional work may make a person’s path toward healing — in some small way — a little less treacherous.
Outdated Concepts of Grief
While studying psychology in undergraduate school, I listened while professors lectured on linear concepts of grief that include stages in which a person experiences emotional responses to loss.
The concept of grief within the community of helping professionals is now understood as an individualized process.
We now understand that a person forges their own path toward healing. While we provide comfort along the way for a grieving person, coping with grief effectively is a uniquely personal journey.
There is no clearly defined map from loss to happiness or healing. There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a loved one, lifestyle, or relationship.
It is likely more accurate to identify coping with grief as adaptive or maladaptive, or perhaps, helpful or unhelpful.
Though it is hard to imagine embracing a shattered heart and sorrowful mourning as “helpful,” it is progress in the process of healing from loss.
Processing Loss Through Self-Expression
The American Counseling Association recently published an article exploring more modern conceptualizations of grief.
Dr. Elizabeth Doughty Horn, Iowa State University Meridian Health Service Center, Department of Counseling resident, explores various coping styles within the grief process.
Each style of coping gives rise to a person’s self-expression of their perception of the loss.
Horn notes that people develop rituals as part of their coping with grief. Some grieving rituals we immediately recognize include funeral ceremonies, candlelight vigils or celebrations of life. These acts of memorialization help families to lovingly remember their loved one and create meaning from their difficult emotions.
Perhaps the most important element of grief rituals is personalization. Everyone grieves in their own way. Healing from the loss of a loved one, significant relationship or a former lifestyle must be a natural process that feels right to the individual mourner.
Finding Ways to Cope and Make Meaning
It seems my father experienced feelings of loss and grief when his mesothelioma progressed, rendering him unable to work.
He missed his job. He missed his friends and co-workers. Somehow, he felt a little less important. Initially, Dad struggled with his feelings of loneliness and yearned for his former busy lifestyle.
Dad found a way to cope with losing his ability to work through poker. Talk about a nontraditional coping strategy.
When he felt up to it, Dad would host a poker night. Dad accepted that his health problems impeded his ability to work, but he found joy in spending time with friends and co-workers in a new way.
Finding Joy in Reflection
Somewhere within the grieving process, the painful emotions associated with loss may transition into more positive, even joyful reflections.
I recall my father’s transition from mourning the loss of his job to roaring with laughter when sharing recollections with his co-workers.
When I lost my father to mesothelioma, I didn’t see the joy in reflection for a very long time.
Through embracing my grief, I developed coping strategies to manage the emotions. Over time, my mourning transitioned to memorialization.
Now, I enjoy reflecting on the times we shared.
Patients and families may find feelings of grief and loss unbearable.
No one should navigate the path of healing alone. There is support available to help people deal with emotional experiences with grief-related loss.
Each person endures loss differently. However, grief is a universal experience for all walks of life.
For some, the first step in processing a loss is exploring available supports with their oncology team.
Many cancer centers employ helping professionals who specialize in coping with cancer-related emotions. These people can assist patients and loved ones in finding the path toward emotional well-being.