Lessons Learned: Grief in Stages

The common stages to grief include denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. Going through grief doesn’t apply only to losing a loved one. The stages also apply to those with a terminal illness, losing a job (even when retiring), ending a marriage or partnership, or any other loss that affects our lives.

Each person handles grief in different ways based on the circumstance. Each person handles grief different than how another person may handle it. With this in mind, I thought about my brother passing away 3 ½ years ago and my dad passing away a year ago today.

I remember when my brother’s girlfriend told me that he had stage 4 lung cancer. I began the grieving process at that time. First words that came out of my mouth were, “What? You’re kidding me.” At the time, the doctors guessed he had about three to four months to live. You hear the words, but you don’t put two and two together on what it means. We were dealing with my mom having her stroke, wondering if she was going to make it through, and then this came as a double whammy. I had to research stage 4 lung cancer to realize how serious his condition was at the time.

The anger that came next wasn’t the physical or shouting anger but more on how it wasn’t fair. He was only in his mid-fifties and too young to die. The anger and the bargaining stages were close together for me. I wished he had gone to the doctor sooner. I wished that I would’ve pressed him to go in, knowing that he was having pain in his shoulder. Depression came next. The sadness in knowing that I would never see him again had me burst in tears without warning. When he went into hospice, I was depressed, but I was accepting of the outcome as well. No one wants to see someone you love go through the pain. Even when medicated, he was miserable.  

On the other side, my brother was going through all four stages of grief right until the end. He was angry. He knew he’d been around Agent Orange. He knew he’d been on a Navy ship that had asbestos. He wasn’t ready to die. He thought he could beat the cancer even up until the very end. My sister was able to get my mom and dad out to see him a couple days before he died. My mom asked him if he was ready to die. He said, “No. Maybe tomorrow.” The morning he died, his friend was there to see him. The day started as it normally did. His friend greeted him and then went to get a cup of coffee. On his return to the room, my brother had died. It was quick, and I wonder if that’s when he accepted the inevitable.  

When my dad died, we knew for a while his health was failing. He had chronic kidney failure, a bad heart, and we guessed that he may have had cancer as well. After he died, I didn’t go through all the stages of grief. I went through two stages: depression and acceptance. Acceptance came first. I was relieved when he passed. Again, like my brother, it’s miserable seeing someone you love being in so much pain. At least now, he wasn’t suffering. The depression came later. In late summer, I was feeling in a funk. I was having a hard time writing. I wasn’t my normal self. I couldn’t pinpoint why until one day when it dawned on me that I was depressed. I was missing my dad.  

For me, my stages of grief were different between brother and father. They were two different scenarios yet still the same. I had lost two members of my family. I think what helps, for anyone going through a major loss is knowing that no matter what, it’s okay to go through the different stages. Grief may only take a few days, while at other times it could take a year or longer. Life always changes. It’s okay. Just remember to keep your memories. The time you had the person can stay in your heart.

Grief flowers


Lesson Learned: Choosing your words carefully

Cancer or any type of illness can create powerful emotions. People react differently to what they hear. This afternoon as I walked during lunch, I thought about people I knew who had received bad news and how different they reacted. I also thought how careful you have to be when giving the news. The following are three examples.

Last year my dad went to a kidney specialist on the recommendation from his doctor. My dad functions on less than half a kidney and has for many years. The kidney specialist, after running tests, wanted my dad to prepare for kidney dialysis so if the kidney totally failed then he’d be ready. In that visit, the doctor guessed that my dad would need dialysis in six months. If he chose not to have dialysis, my dad would die approximately two months from needing it. My dad heard six months to live. Today, over six months from that initial visit, we can’t convince my dad any different. He stuck on those doctor’s words even though he heard incorrectly and that has dampened his spirits. On the other hand, the doctor never gave him words of encouragement either. Lesson here is to listen to what the doctor has to say but do your research as well. Just because the statistics say one thing doesn’t mean that you’ll fit the mold.

For a writer friend, she learned a couple months ago that she had skin cancer on her face. When the office called to tell her the news, she only heard the word “cancer.” She had cancer. The person giving her the news went into detail on what they found and what they would have to do. My friend never heard a word beyond “cancer.” She hung up the phone as the person was talking to her. She had to let the bad news soak in. Once the initial shock was over, my friend called her doctor’s office back. She apologized and then told the person to repeat everything from their first conversation so she could hear it. The lesson this time is for the doctor’s office. The receiver needs time to absorb the words that no one wants to hear. This may be routine for you, but it’s not for the person on the other end.

Lastly, for my brother Mike, he listened when the doctor told him that he had lung cancer. However the part that he was at Stage IV with maybe six months to live wasn’t comprehendible to him. My brother was adamant that he was going to survive. Even when the cancer pressed against his spine and left him paralyzed, he wouldn’t accept that his cancer spread beyond cure. He refused to believe it even a few days before he died. Lesson here is a hard one. We were the ones who had to choose our words carefully. We had to stay positive along with him. The hospice did wonders to counsel my brother and us. We will always be grateful for their care and guidance.

The point I’m trying to make in today’s blog is to remember how powerful words can be. Those words can change someone’s life. Hopefully you don’t have to be the bringer of bad news, but if so, think of the receiver. Each one of us reacts differently, and we all have to be mindful.

Lesson Learned: Bittersweet Appreciation

This past Friday and Saturday were tough days for me. On August 11, 2011, my brother died of lung cancer. He was alert one minute and the next gone. I wonder if he knew what was happening to him. Did he decide to go or was the choice made for him? Was he aware of what was going on?

He had been looped up on drugs to keep him pain-free. He knew who we were when we came to visit, but he’d repeat a sentence five times and not realize it. His hands shook when he poured creamer into his coffee cup. He’d take a sip, only to spill on himself. He was too stubborn to let us help. That was Mike.

Now, I look back and remember how much pain he’d been in. How the cancer ate at his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. We were selfish to want him to stay with us and to fight. We were guilty for wanting him to go so he wouldn’t have to suffer.

My brother Mike wasn’t perfect by any means. He was stubborn like a bent, rusty nail stuck in a board. No matter how hard you tried to pull on him, he’d stick to his way or no way. He was weathered in both looks and demeanor. Life had been hard for him, but he always found time to laugh or joke around. He could talk your ear off, and you were lucky if you completed one sentence. And then when he finished talking, the conversation was over.

I had days when I got along with him and days when I didn’t. I still remember both. Those memories are what made my brother, and I will keep both good and bad in my heart. I tell myself that it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to grieve. And it’s okay to laugh at his idiosyncrasies and to cherish the times when he was a true brother. In fact, I bet wherever he is right now, he’s got a fishing rod in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and laughing at us, wondering why it took us so long.

Here’s to you, Mike. I love and miss you.

Lesson Learned: Bravery never ends for those who serve.

My brother died less than a year ago to lung cancer. The cancer was typical of vets exposed to Agent Orange or asbestos. He was in the Marines, stationed in Hawaii, when he traveled by ship (with asbestos in the walls) to bring back other Marines still over in Vietnam at the end of the war. He also remembered being near the orange containers on land.

Mike was diagnosed with cancer in November, 2010. For about a year (previous to that) he had complained about his shoulder hurting. He worked on boats and motors, thinking he injured himself due to work. My nephew, his son, finally convinced him to go see a doctor. After tests, we found out he had Stage IV lung cancer. At first we thought his cancer was from years of smoking; however, this cancer formed on the outside of his lungs, not inside his lungs. He had the same symptoms as other vets whose cancer was confirmed as an after effect of the war.

For Mike, the cancer was already in his bones, eating at his spine. Chemo and radiation worked to shrink the cancer but only enough to give him some relief. Not enough for hope as the cancer continued to grow. In June of 2011, he went into hospice care. Not long after, he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Every time we (family and friends) went to visit him, we’d have to take him out for a smoke, which turned into three or four cigarettes based on how long we could stay for a visit. There was no smoking in the building where he stayed, and the nurses couldn’t take their time bringing patients out for a smoke. But for Mike, going outside was a must. He loved hearing the leaves rustle in the wind, seeing the clouds roll by, and feeling the rain on his skin. He watched the rabbits play and hide in the bushes. I wished I had more time with him. That he could have spent one more time doing what he loved most – fishing.

Mike died August 11, 2011, at the age of 55. He wanted a party to celebrate his life and not mourn his death. I think he would’ve liked the bar chosen for his ‘party’, the food served, and the laughter of sharing Mike stories.

At his grave, the Vietnam Vets, Chapter 470 from Anoka, MN, provided a small service and a 3 rifle volley to pay final respect to one of their fellow vets. Their service will stay in my heart forever. A discarded shell from one of their volleys sits in my printer’s tray with a picture of my brother. That shell gives me honor to know he served our country. His efforts were braved years after his time in service.

Happy Memorial Day to all those who served and continue to serve our country.