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Handbook for Mortals : Enduring and Changing

Mourning Your Losses

The downward spiral of emotion and the roller-coaster feelings are the natural consequence of loss. Like most, you have undoubtedly experienced loss in the past. Perhaps you lost a pet as a child. You might remember the loss of a "first love," or friends left behind when your family moved away. You will often have lost important relationships through separation, divorce, and death. Now you are confronting the loss of your life as well as your dreams for the future.

Norma summed it up well. "Death is the least of my worries. I always knew it would happen someday. But it's watching part of me die each day that is so terrifying." Of course, she is referring to her succession of physical losses. Your losses may be different. You may not have the energy or spirit to function well as a parent, spouse, or friend. You may not have the strength to work or pursue activities you once enjoyed. You may often want to be alone.

Medications may make you very tired. You may be alone because family and friends begin to distance themselves, in part as a way to cope with their own loss. It is then that you will realize that life is propelling you to the finish line over the roughest terrain you could ever have imagined. Can you recover from the changes and disappointments? It is possible to survive the "little deaths" if you are able to mourn your losses as they occur.

In spite of what our society suggests or well-intentioned friends offer, mourning is a normal, healthy response to loss. It helps us to survive all kinds of troubles, so that we can make the necessary adjustments to changes. It's generally easier to mourn for another and perhaps it feels a bit self-indulgent to mourn for yourself, but letting yourself do so can be healing for your body and your mind.

What's especially important is that you find a way to mourn that makes sense to you and ultimately brings you some portion of comfort. You may find that crying provides the best release, especially when sadness overwhelms you. Far from being a sign of weakness, crying is one way to soften the emotional pain brought on by the changes in your life. Whether you are able to cry and how often depends on your individual temperament and the significance of the loss.

The need to grieve for your losses in this way (or in whatever way you are comfortable with) will recur at different times in your illness. Norma, who referred to "little deaths" happening each day, said, "I find that every time my body lets me down or I see myself getting thinner, I become inconsolable. I wish that I could pull the covers over my head and disappear." Crying can be a good way to mourn the "little deaths." Other ways can be just as effective.

A Case Study

Gloria was in her late forties when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease that had killed her mother when Gloria was 17. Now, her own children were in grade school, and she needed to reassure them about her health while preparing for just how sick treatment would make her.

Because chemotherapy would make her hair fall out, she had tried to prepare herself for that eventuality by cutting her luxurious, long black hair. One day, though, while talking to the children about what it would be like to see Mommy bald, she decided to let them cut her hair. She herself had always wondered how it would look cropped, or cut stylishly short. Her daughter was given one side to trim as she pleased. Gloria's husband asked to do the other. In the end, her hair was a little ragged and uneven, not quite professional or stylish but lovingly styled and, for a while, beautiful to Gloria and her family. The love Gloria's family shared is what matters, and what will be remembered.

To learn more about the book "Handbook for Mortals" click here.