not a courageous battle

i’m going to say some ugly things, but they are real for me, and i give myself permission to speak my truth.

i became aware of these ugly feelings when i was talking to my out of town besties about how it went down with my aunt.  i’ve found several times that people assume that a person who gets cancer relatively young (58) doesn’t want to die.  in this case, that’s a wrong assumption.  deciding not to get treatment was not a difficult decision for her.

to be sure, when you get a recurrance of cervical cancer, your chances are very slim for a recovery.  for most people, chemo doesn’t do anything during your second occurance.  you would mainly be hoping to slow the growth and expansion of the cancer.  prognosis the second time around is bad.

my aunt was a person who thought things through, who weighed the evidence, made informed decisions.  the statistics, her finances, the odds.  but if i stop romanticizing it, her first words to me were about how her children were grown, her husband was dead, and her mother didn’t need her anymore.  in addition she hated her job and lived alone.  what did she have to live for?  she presented such a passionate, pitiful, and convincing argument… really… what could i say?  i bought it.  you can’t inspire a person to appreciate life who is plainly over it.

her oncologist recommended she try at least one round of chemo.  she nitpicked the details of his approach and pushed the option off the table.  what for?  she asked.  a few more months?  my best friend is a doctor, he visited her and encouraged her to look into a second opinion at the university hospital.  maybe there was a drug trial.  maybe there were other methods of treatment.  she half-heartedly agreed to look into it.  i never heard anything more about that.

now that she’s gone, i think back on this summer.  did this really happen?  at the beginning of may i was looking forward to finishing grad school and starting a gleefully unstructured new life.  a couple weeks later, i was staring at her death sentence  and convincing myself to get on board, support her, normalize this idea of giving up on life.

sitting around the table at the funeral home, brainstorming her obituary, we were trying to decide whether to put her cause of death in the announcement.  i said aloud that she didn’t really fight cancer.  she didn’t lose a battle.

some of the condolence cards i’ve received have talked about her courage.  i have blinked past the words, numbing out, holding her up saintly, respecting the dead.  but the truth is, she didn’t want to live.  she did not try to live.  she was not afraid to die, but she was afraid to die in pain.  she felt absolutely awful about leaving us and would cry those pitiful tears, putting me in the position to blurt out those compulsive words of reassurance, it’s not your fault.  but the truth is, she did leave us.  without a fight.  with this depressive narrative that runs through many members of our family, talking about how life isn’t worth it.

i’ve said before that i respect her decision not to seek treatment.  i still mean that, i can respect that choice.  but i’m starting to come into the anger and hurt and disbelief.  i am facing my initial feelings that i shoved into a little box in my stomach back in may.  she didn’t want to live.  i was not enough, me and my sometimey companionship.  her children were not enough – they don’t live with her anymore.  her life was not enough to fight for.  and it feels like shit.  and i’m so mad.  i want to call names.  like coward.  keeping these ugly feelings in a box in my stomach with a pretty bow called acceptable grieving is not going to serve me now.

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5 thoughts on “not a courageous battle

  1. Let me be blunt, as a result of my own stumbling, shambling trip down Grief Lane: Screw acceptable. You have to live this. No one else. I yell at Dustin all the time in the car: How could you do this, how could you be so careless, how could you leave me here like this? Why, damn you, why?

    I get it. I understand. No one told me it was going to be easy, but no one told me it would be so damn hard, either.

    • thank you. i do have to live inside this when i take away all the warm words, condolences, celebrations of her life. i love her AND i understand her AND i’m angry. i think a lot about protecting her image from people who didn’t know her very well, but this is for me.

  2. You have to continue to get these feelings out and remove their power over you. Talk over your feelings with your minister, psychologist, etc. This blog is a great start, but it’s just a start.

    My father committed suicide when I was 9, leaving behind a wife and child with no financial future. My whole life I’ve thought about suicide – what it means, why people do it, and when it makes sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that one and only one thing causes suicide – overwhelming depression. Overwhelming depression convinces one that they are worthless, that things can never get better, and often that one is a horrible burden for the people they love most.

    I’m pretty sure my father had a predisposition to depression, which played a key role in his deciding life was no longer worth living. I say that because I’m pretty sure I inherited it. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life. I know what overwhelming depression feels like. Fortunately, I’ve never been so depressed that I attempted suicide. But there have been many times I prayed for a heart attack in my sleep. Experiencing this myself has allowed me to forgive him, to realize he felt the only way he could stop depression’s torment was to die. In his eyes all he saw was a future filled with pain. It may be that something like this drove your aunt’s decision. Then again, maybe not.

    Ten months ago I was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. Unlike most other stage IV cancers, mine does not start with surgery and/or chemo. I get a few years on hormone suppression therapy, which is a piece of cake compared to chemo. This is where I am now. When it fails, and it always does, chemo is the next step and then death. Remission after chemo for prostate cancer is very, very rare. My oncologist holds out no hope for it.

    I now spend a fair amount of time thinking about what I should do when the time comes for chemo, assuming there are no breakthroughs between now and then. My current thinking is to try chemo with the expectation I’ll quit because of pain and nausea.

    I’ve experienced the pain and nausea that radiation can produce, as I decided to initially treat my cancer with an aggressive use of radiation that isn’t typically done. It threw me into the most horrible depressions I’ve ever experienced. The shrinks I see weren’t surprised. They told me serious depression is a known side effect and can take months to fully recover from. During this period, my life was not worth living as far as I was concerned.

    When I think about my upcoming “opportunity” to get chemo to extend my life, what I see is deciding to take on outrageous amounts of pain, probably leading to overwhelming depression, and then I die. I will live at most a few months longer, but all I will do is suffer and be unable to enjoy any of the time I’m in treatment or the little extra time it provides.

    I could decide to “fight”, but the reality is I can’t win. If I decide to fight, the chemo will make sure I’m less available emotionally and intellectually for the ones I love. If I decide to not “fight”, but to accept the inevitable, it won’t be because I don’t love anyone enough to fight for them. I don’t want to die, period. If I decide to forgo treatment, it will be because I think it’s the best solution for everyone. I will assume the people who love me will eventually realize I was going to die very soon regardless and I didn’t want what little time I had left with them clouded by still more pain.

    Perhaps, my depression will take a significant role in my decision to forgo treatment. Even then, I won’t be deciding not to fight because I don’t love anyone enough. Quite the contrary, I’m sure the depression will convince me the most loving thing I can do is to die sooner, so the people I care about most can get on with rebuilding their lives.

    Regardless, more than anything else after my death, I would want the people who are affected to seek help. Grieving is hard. Trying to do it on one’s own is incredibly slow and difficult. One’s friends and family rarely know the best ways to help folks who are grieving. Professional help is the best bet, IMHO, to minimize the time spent grieving.

    • thank you sincerely for posting such a thoughtful, personal reply. i appreciate it more than i can express. your having been on both sides of depression adds to your the authenticity of your words.

      thank you for the beautiful explanation of the thought process on deciding not to seek treatment. it’s like the words were coming straight from her, she said some of these very things. i know she was not actively suicidal. she was also never diagnosed with depression, but her depressive thought process (like i said, a family trait) is loud and clear to me. she was so pleasant, so accepting in the end. in the final week all of her medical needs were taken care of in hospice, so she was really herself and taking advantage of the opportunity to connect and enjoy family and friends and the bit of life she had left. that was really beautiful. and a stark contrast to my memory of her at the second diagnosis when depression was at its height.

      thank you for highlighting the fact that significant depression is a known side effect of the treatments. it makes complete sense, but i didn’t know.

      i completely agree with you that professional help is going to be key in getting through this. i happen to be a therapist by profession, but in no way to i think that gives me an advantage in the grief process. i also struggle with periodic major depression. luckily, her hospice offers 13 months of free grief counseling to the family. i’m all over that. maybe i’ll make the call today.

      you are an incredible person. Thank you so much for your with your openness about your experience. i wish you and your loved ones as many years of good life as you can manage. thank you again for sharing your story with me.

      • Thank you for letting me know this may have helped. It was very painful to write. Your Aunt doesn’t want you to feel bad over her death. She wants you to rejoice in her life. Until you resolve your grief that won’t be fully possible. Anything you can do to accelerate that process is a gift to her.

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