In 1969 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her classic book, “On Death and Dying”. I was required to read it as a class assignment in nursing school. The book outlined the five stages of grief and loss of someone who is dying. In later years, these stages of grief and loss became known to be associated with other types of loss.
I talk to so many who tell me that the day of their cancer diagnosis was the day their “normal” life ended. I’ve recognized these same stages as we grieve the loss of our “normal” lives after a cancer diagnosis. I think many of us have gone through these stages as we’ve relinquished our before-cancer normal lives. I know I did.
• Denial and isolation: “This is not happening to me.” We feel detached, we can’t assimilate the reality that we are now cancer patients. It was so unreal the first time I sat in an oncologist’s waiting room knowing that though I felt great, I was now a “cancer patient”. I was a cancer patient just like the bald person across the room. Just like the very thin and sick-looking person across the room. I was one of them, a cancer patient.
• Anger: “How dare God do this to me.” I never felt “Why me?”, but I was angry sometimes that people I knew who abused their bodies, were abusive to other people and who were just plain mean lived to old age without having any severe illness threaten their lives. And I knew good, faithful and God-honoring people who died of cancer and abandoned their children. I saw kids with cancer. I was angry at the unfairness of it all, the injustice.
• Bargaining: I’ll eat right, I’ll do chemotherapy, I’ll do surgery, I’ll quit smoking, I’ll exercise…just let me live long enough to raise my kids. I just want to see them graduate from high school.
•Depression: I am so sad, I feel horrible at the pain and worry I am causing those I love, I’m afraid of the future, I’m afraid of tomorrow. I’m so sad.
•Acceptance: I’m here now, at acceptance, but it was a very long and hard road. And I guess since I’ve almost achieved what I’d “bargained” for, maybe it’s easier for me than for others. I’ve been in the cancer community for over 6 years now. It can be a place of brutal reality, of fear, of sadness, of anxiety. But I truly accept now that there is a purpose for all things, even the bad things. I accept that every day is a gift and that none of us are promised tomorrow. I accept that we need to make today count. I accept that God’s answer is “no” to many prayers. I accept that there is much I don’t and can’t know from my perspective in this here and now.
But I feel with certainty that this here and now is not all that there is. I know there is much more beyond this life. I accept my life as tentative in this realm, but I know this is not the only realm. I accept all of the grief and goodness this life has to offer, but I anticipate another reality after this one where we are whole, where we can understand, where everything makes sense, where there is no grief. And now I very much look forward to that reality. For me that is the greater hope…greater than the hope of surviving my cancer.