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For Any Cancer Diagnosis

Ask CancerCare

Every month, featured experts answer your questions about coping with cancer including specific answers to questions asked by caregivers.

For Any Cancer Diagnosis

    Q. My co-worker and friend recently lost her husband of 23 years to prostate cancer. I want to be there for her, but I'm not sure how best support her. Could you give advice on what I might say or can do?

    A.

    When someone close to you experiences such a loss, this is bound to affect you deeply. You are likely to observe that your friend is not quite herself in the workplace, and that she may be overcome with emotion, filled with sadness, and tearful. These expressions are normal responses to grief. Still, you and other co-workers may feel unsure about what to say or do to comfort and support your friend.

    Remember that it is natural for you as her friend, to be struggling with your own reactions to her loss. You may feel that you have to offer her answers to her problems or find a way to help her through her grieving more quickly. It’s important to recognize that there is no magic answer or quick fix. Instead, focus on these few basic guidelines:

    • Grief is a process and takes time. Remain patient and available, and be aware that she will have her ups and downs. Reassuring your friend that it’s okay to have ups and downs will help her understand what is normal in grief.
    • Listening is often the very best kind of support you can provide. Just be available to her and allow your friend the time and space she needs. She will have sorrow and many other powerful feelings to express. You cannot take these feelings away or “make it all better,” but by listening you can demonstrate that you care and that her feelings matter.
    • Extend yourself in practical and specific ways. It can be uncomfortable for a person who is grieving to ask for help, so offering to do specific tasks can be helpful.

    For more information on how you can help your friend, please read our fact sheet, How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving.

    Q. I am a 20-year-old college student and I recently lost two grandparents to cancer. I was close to both and am having trouble dealing with guilt and regret for not being there when they died or spending more time with them. What can I do?

    A.

    Losing grandparents, no matter what age they were when they died, will always make us feel that we just wanted more time to spend with them. The sense that there was more to say to them, more special times to share, and more memories for us to “collect” and treasure for the future may move us to be filled with guilt or regret about not having done enough.

    Although guilt can be a common characteristic of normal grief, it should be balanced with the awareness that we really tried to do the best that we could for our loved one given our human limitations.

    It is very difficult to lose two grandparents to cancer in such a short amount of time. How does someone grieving two important loved ones cope when the losses are one right after the other? Allow me, if you will, to step into the role of your grandparents and speak to you directly in each of their “voices”:

    “As you know, I have always wanted the very best for you. I remember you when you were born, and was so proud of you as I watched you grow up. You were the dream come true for your parents, and the joy of my life in my later years. We spent a lot of wonderful times together, didn’t we?

    “The last thing I would want is for you to focus too much on the fact that you may not have been able to be there with me during my last moments. My greatest hope is that, as you live your life, you will hold onto the memories of me, which are deep inside of you.”

    This simple role-play exercise may help you to replace the negative thoughts with positive “feedback.” You can also think about your grandparents' most significant qualities, those that you will never forget. Consider that these positive qualities are part of the legacy left to you and everyone else your grandparents cared about.

    We offer an online bereavement support group and our social workers can help you find local bereavement services. An additional resource is griefnet.org, which also offers support groups and resources.

    Q. My older sister recently died and my friends have urged me to join a support group to help me deal with her death. I'm not quite sure how to go about doing this - could you help direct me?

    A.

    Grief is a process which continues over a period of time, and so many people have been able to find the comfort and direction they need by seeking out individual counseling or by joining a bereavement support group. People often express that they understood more about the nature of grief, were more accepting of their feelings, and felt less isolated when they participated in counseling or in a support group.

    Here are some benefits of participating in a support group:

    • You will connect with other members of the group who have a shared difficult life experience, the loss of a loved one.
    • Sharing a loss helps create a bond of trust among members and allows a support system to naturally develop over time as the group holds regular meetings.
    • Members encourage one another to express powerful feelings which normally emerge during loss: sadness, anger, frustration, and longing for the loved one, as well as hope for the future.
    • Members exchange information about the grief process such as articles, books, and websites, and what has been helpful for them.
    • Often, the group may decide to devote a special meeting to sharing pictures of their loved ones with each other. This experience can be a way of honoring the legacy of those who have died.
    • Members support each other as they anticipate and experience days that may be especially challenging, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and the holidays.

    It is important to remember that, as a group member, you are encouraged to share as much or as little as you wish. A group can give you the strength you need to carry on through the daily ups and downs that are part of grief and provide you with invaluable ideas to help you care for yourself.

    Q. My husband died about five months ago and I think I should be feeling better by now, but honestly, I feel worse. Is there something wrong with me?

    A.

    I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. In the process of grief, five months is really not a long time, although many people who are grieving expect to feel better sooner and cannot understand why they are still struggling with such intense feelings. Most people who are grieving express that they have some good days along with difficult days. Be gentle with yourself as you experience these normal feelings that are a part of grief.

    It is important to remember that the grieving process does take time and cannot be rushed. Although it may feel very upsetting, it is normal to have emotional ups and downs. You are experiencing your world without the physical and emotional presence of your loved one and planning for your own future.

    I suggest seeking out supportive services to help you better understand the process of grief and to connect to others who understand what you are feeling. You may benefit from individual counseling, participating in a support group, or reading more about grief and what to expect.

    To learn more about coping with grief, please see our fact sheets, Living with Grief: How Can You Help Yourself and Coping with the Loss of Your Partner or Spouse

    I also recommend the book, How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, by Therese Rando (Bantam Publishers).

    Remember, it is a normal and positive step to reach out for help and support during your grief.

    Q. I am 16 years old. My mother died of cancer when I was 12. I am still grieving deeply about it. What can I do to feel better?

    A.

    For children and teens who have lost a parent, feelings will be continue to come up as you get older. As a 12 year old, the death of your mother was extremely difficult for many reasons that are personal for you. As you are growing and experiencing different life events such as turning 16, driving, going to high school events, etc., you may experience increased feelings of grief.

    There are several things you can do to cope better with the loss of a loved one.

    Allow yourself the time and space to grieve. During significant moments in your life, you will feel a range of emotions and intense feelings, and these are typical and are part of the grieving process. Give yourself the opportunity to acknowledge these feelings and work through them at your own pace.

    Reach out to supportive people in your life to help you manage through these difficult times. Friends, family, teachers, coaches, school counselors, are all people who may be available when you are in need of support. While some of these people might be better at listening to you, others might be helpful by taking you out to a movie or dinner. Both types of support are equally important. Reaching out to a grief counselor or joining a support group for teens who have lost a parent could also be helpful.

    Plan for special days or holidays. Your mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and your birthday are all days when you may need additional support. Planning a way to honor your mother on these days may help you in your grieving process.

    Here are a few additional resources on coping with loss for you to read:

    Q. My 42-year-old brother passed away this year and I was his caregiver. I am devastated and do not know how to cope this holiday season.

    A.

    The holidays are a time for giving, so please give yourself the gift of acceptance — your grief is part of your healing process. It’s natural that remembering your brother at this time brings sadness and pain. Express your feelings and try not to isolate yourself from those who care about you.

    Remembering your brother on special days is way to honor him. He can be there in spirit through a symbolic ritual such as lighting a candle at a family dinner or planting a tree on New Year’s Day. Do things that have a personal meaning to you and will foster positive memories of him.

    Your feelings are a normal response to loss and you need to give yourself time to adjust to living in this world without him. Do what you feel up to doing during the holidays, but take care of yourself and let others know that you have limited energy, both emotionally and physically.

    To learn more about grief, what to expect, and how to cope, please read:

    Finally, How To Go On Living When Some One you Love Dies, is an excellent book that is written by one of the foremost experts on grief, Therese A. Rando (Bantam Publishers).

    Q. I am a 4 year survivor of prostate cancer, my sister just lost her 11-month ordeal with pancreatic cancer. She was told she had cancer almost 20 years after losing our mother, so holidays are rough for me and the rest of the family. Any thoughts as to how to handle this?

    A.

    I am very sorry for the recent loss of your sister and the trying times that you and your family now face, especially as the holidays approach. Likely, there is a “legacy of loss” that has become part of your family’s experience during this time of year, which may add to the grief you are now experiencing. The struggle to try to maintain some degree of normalcy during a very confusing and difficult time is profound, and I’m glad you are reaching out for guidance.

    I want to assure you that it is possible to get through this time in a way that feels “right” for you individually and also as a family. There are no rules here; listening to yourselves and acknowledging your limits will be very important as you approach the weeks ahead. Consider each commitment you make and ask yourself honestly, “Is this something I can realistically take on right now?” You are carrying a heavy load and taking time to pay attention to your feelings will help you to make choices that will honor your grief and spend time together as a family.

    This time can also be an opportunity for you to come together as a family in very meaningful ways. Perhaps you will decide to avoid the holiday pressures, and instead simply spend your time in each other’s company. It will be important to open up a dialogue with your family about their feelings, thoughts, and ideas as to how they would like to spend the holidays while remembering your mother and sister. Be honest and gentle with yourselves and with each other—this will help to facilitate communication and understanding and find the right balance.

    For more information that might be helpful, please view Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s video, Coping With Grief During the Holidays.

    Please know that you are not alone and if you or any of your family members would like some additional support, please call our Hopeline at 800-813-4673. Our Hopeline is answered by CancerCare professional oncology social workers who are here to help and guide you. I hope you and your family will find some comfort during this difficult time.

    Q. I lost my only daughter this past Jan. 2011—she was only 38 years old and left 3 young children. They do not live close to me. Christmas is coming up and I don't know how to get through all the joy of others. I do not want to be a downer to my other family members. I am married, but my husband is going through his own grief. Suggestions?

    A.

    I am so very sorry for the loss of your only daughter, and at such a young age. Your grief, especially as you face the one year anniversary of your daughter’s death, is understandably intense right now and needs proper attention and care.

    You are not a “downer”—you are experiencing grief and that is real. This is a time for you to do whatever you can to take care of yourself. If you feel like crying, pardon yourself, and go have a good cry. Take the time and space you need to feel whatever comes your way and as much you are able, protect yourself from those who might place unrealistic expectations on you or judge you. Trying to force yourself to be happy might cause you additional stress, so try not to do anything you are not comfortable with; remember to pay attention to your feelings and internal reactions, and be gentle with yourself right now.

    In order to take good care of yourself, consider identifying trusted friends and family to share your concerns with. If there is anyone you can confide in, call upon them to become your “shepherd” in helping to guide and support you during this difficult time. You might also come up with a “script” or something that you can say that feels authentic when people ask how you are doing, such as “this is a difficult time, but thank you for asking.” Making room for your grief during the holiday season may help you to feel less pressure, and hopefully allow for moments of peace, solace, or even joy that may come your way as you remember your daughter and spend time with your loved ones.

    For additional guidance, please read our fact sheets, “Grief and Healing With the Loss of a Loved One” and “Helping Children Who Have Lost a Loved One.”

    If you would like some additional support, please do not hesitate to call our Hopeline at 800-813-4673. You can speak with a CancerCare oncology social worker who can provide support, guidance, and resources.

    Q. My daughter passed away from cancer about 6 months ago and I'm concerned about my 2 grandchildren, ages 7 and 4. Could you give me advice about how I might be able to help them?

    A.

    As a parent who recently lost a child, it can be very difficult to deal with your own grief while also trying to support other family members, including children. How you support your grandchildren may vary depending on their age and how they are grieving.

    Your grandchildren are most likely grieving differently than the adults in your family. You may find that they can be crying or sad one moment and then asking to play a few moments later. This is a normal reaction for children and can be helpful in their grieving. Especially with younger children, play is a way for them to express difficult thoughts or feelings that might not otherwise be shared.

    You may also find the children continue to ask questions about their mother’s death or if she will be coming back. For children under the age of 7 it is difficult to understand that death is permanent, so they may continue to ask about it. While these questions can feel uncomfortable to answer, it is important to continue to address these questions in a concrete way. Saying that she is “asleep” or “passed away” may sound comforting to adults, but can easily confuse children.

    Continue to love and support your grandchildren as you have been doing and take the time to listen to their questions and concerns. It is important for them to know that there are adults they can turn to.

    Some families find it helpful to attend bereavement groups for children that have lost a loved one. These groups usually use play and creating art as a way to help children cope with their grief, while meeting other children who have also experienced the death of a loved one.

    Here are a few additional resources that may be helpful:

    If you would like some additional support, please do not hesitate to call our Hopeline at 800-813-4673 and speak with an oncology social worker who can provide support, resources, and guidance.

    Q. I'm a third-grade teacher and one of my student's mothers recently died of cancer. I'd like to know how to help her, and how to help the rest of my class support her.

    A.

    When a child loses a parent, it is natural for those around them to want to take away the pain or say something that will fix it. It is important to remember that you do not need to have all the answers. What your student needs most is to know there is someone there to listen and support her. For the most part, you will want to continue to provide structure and guidance in the same way you did before her mother’s death. Children, even those who are grieving, do best when adhering to their routine and what is familiar to them.

    If you have the chance to speak with her privately, you can let her know that you are available if she ever wants to talk. This does not mean you need to take on the responsibilities of a counselor; rather you can be the starting point for her to get additional support. If your school has a counselor, you can help by introducing your student to him/her. Let your student know that if there is ever a time where she feels it is too difficult to be in class she can signal to you and leave to go to the counselor’s office.

    As a class, many of the students may have some experience with death, maybe the death of a pet or a grandparent. Most will not have experienced the loss of a parent. The children in your class can be supportive of your student in very concrete ways by making a sympathy card, putting a care package together, and doing other kind gestures.

    The following are resources to help the school staff as well as the child’s father:

    Q. A kindergartner’s twin brother died from cancer. What are some things to best help the family and the surviving child?

    A.

    This family is adjusting to a major loss, and now more than ever, they need patience, love and understanding. The first rule in helping is: “Listen.” What are the parents telling you? Most often, the best way to be of service will come out in their words, although probably subtly.

    Grief is an ongoing and lifelong journey, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. In terms of the parents, very often, those who are grieving will forget to take care of themselves. This can take a toll on their health and can impact the household even more. You may need to remind the parents of the importance of self-care. Let them know that you are there for them, in whatever way they need. If they are not in a place to ask for help, be proactive. Some suggestions that might be helpful include cooking meals, cleaning, organizing, helping with thank you notes or grocery shopping. Just as friends rallied around them when they were taking care of a sick child, they now need a different kind of support, as they work on adjusting to their loss. Your helping out with everyday tasks may allow them more time for self-care, as well as more time with their child who is now adjusting to life as an only child.

    At a kindergarten age, generally, children think in more concrete terms and do not understand the concept of “forever,” so it would be likely for this grieving child to think that his twin will come back. The family may need to remind the child that his sibling will not be coming back. Using euphemisms for the word “death” can be confusing to children, as in, “My brother is lost, and I am going to find him!” If the family has a belief system that includes heaven, the child may need to know that they cannot visit the twin in heaven. Younger children are less able to use words, but will express themselves in games, play or drawings. Through play, the parents might be able to pick up on thoughts or concerns that the child finds too complicated to express directly.

    Children also use “magical thinking.” This child may think that what happened to his twin may also happen to him. Lots of reassurances need to be given, and questions need to be answered honestly with the child. More than ever, this child will need hugs and kisses and “I love you’s.” Many studies indicate that twins have a deep level of connectedness, and this may make this new separation more difficult. The child may also experience survivor’s guilt, and an open discussion to address this is important.

    When life can be so challenging, it can be hard to express that life can also have joy and beauty. In fact, it may be impossible to see it at times, especially when there is such profound loss. But it important that children learn over time that even though life may be difficult or unfair, wonder and joy can still exist. We need to keep the sense of joy, wonder and happiness alive in children.

    I think it is both very helpful and important to keep the memory of the twin alive in the home. But how is that memory kept alive? Every family is different. The family may want to plant a tree, or create a memory garden. Perhaps they create a spot where photos of the twin are kept, or maybe the pictures remain throughout the house. If the family is spiritual, maybe they want to create a special prayer that will become part of an evening ritual.

    Additional resources for families coping with loss include:

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