What a joy it is when another story of a “miracle” remission comes in. So much so that we could easily fall into the trap of forgetting about the cases where the outcome was not joyful and the patient died, usually after a long and protracted ordeal. Unfortunately, the number of these unfortunates dying each day of cancer in the US is roughfully the equivalent of the lives lost in one of the World Trade Center towers. This means that a multitude of loved ones are left to cope with grief and sorrow black as night. When the patient was still alive, he/she was the focus of attention for many. Not so the caregiver. After the flowers and the initial casseroles, it is amazing how quickly the world goes about it’s way leaving the erstwhile caregiver to grieve alone.
Grief does not seem to enjoy the status of a reckognized disease and that is a pity for it can likewise be deadly. I know for I have been there. The joy of my conquest of deadly renal cell cancer was to be lost in the death of my wife to ovarian cancer. It was all over so fast. First the discovery, then the 2 weeks of anxious uncertainty followed by a medical mistake that killed her in four days. We lacked 6 months making it to our Golden Wedding anniversary. I found myself in the grip of forces far worse than any encountered in my own cancer fight. I had the worst portions of grief, anger and a primitive desire for revenge all trying their best to destroy me. I am not exaggerating when I say that the grief came nearer to killing me than the cancer ever did.
There have been many excellent works on grief. The best seem to be by those who have truly experienced it. I was recently intrigued by an old familiar Bible story. This may be found in the eighth chapter of the book of Luke starting with verse 26. It deals with Jesus experience with casting out devils from a man wildly possessed. This story captures the imagination and has been at the root of many best selling secular books and movies. Now I am going to tamper with this story with a flight of imagination that I can assure the reader is neither inspired nor intended to offend. I merely want you to follow me through an analogy that does not seem too far from the truth. We are told initially that this deranged man was living in the tombs. Now this seems odd behavior for any place and time. Could it be that the possession is derived from unrequitted grief that has led to unbearable guilt? Grief is a natural and necessary human emotion. It has even been reported that tears of grief differ in content slightly from tears of joy, in that there are low level toxins released in grief. Grief can lead to a virtual shut down of the immune system, a loss of seratonin and ultimately clinical depression which can include erratic behavior and even suicide. Worse yet, guilt can set in without a rational cause. I expect that if guilt were removed from the human situation, the evil one would be unarmed! We do not know what burdens of guilt, doubt or loss of self esteem may have brought the demoniac of the story to that condition. Evidently he did see Jesus as a ray of hope and threw himself at his feet although at first unwilling to let go of the legion of demons troubling him. The best we are told that his neighbors could do for him was to bind him in chains. No indication of comfort anywhere in the story, much like the story of Job’s “comforters”. Could it be that a judgemental community had fed this poor chap’s guilt feelings over the loss of a loved one to the point of driving him over the edge? Curiously enough, these same neighbors, instead of hailing Jesus for the miracle, demanded that he leave the country for they were taken with great fear. What was the basis for this fear? I should think that this should have been the occasion for great feasting and rejoicing. Perhaps the fear of further loss to the swine growers economy. Perhaps it went even deeper from a fear of being exposed for the way they had treated their poor grieving neighbor.
I can tell you for a fact that in my loneliness my self accusations of guilt multiplied to the point where I was very nearly a basket case. I was fortunate in getting proper medical help just in time. Others have not been so fortunate. If any of you reading this are presently in the throes of grief, I wish you would take heart and realize that there is a very real hope for a return to happiness. Although it took almost four years I eventually found happiness in a wonderful lady who had, like me, known this grief black as death. Life is wonderful for us and we now count our blessings as we rejoice in each new day. I would never have imagined that such an outcome was possible.
I discovered along the way that it was not necessary for me to get “over” my dear wife’s untimely death. To do so would have meant giving up the treasured memories as well. No, it was only necessary to get “through” it and that we have both, thankfully and with God’s help, done. I now have realized just what it means to have the love of two wonderful women in my life. Fortunately, a beneficent and all knowing God answered my prayers for death. The answer was “No”, for He had something far better in mind for me. Although it was severely curtailed for a while, I found new meaning in my work with cancer patients that I would never have known had I pulled that trigger. It has been said that there are three “T’s” necessary for dealing with grief. These are tears, time and talk. It is not only alright to cry, it is necessary. The passage of time, provided it is moving with purpose and direction is a great healer.
Talk, with the right persons, can do wonders. Along that line, talk can also be very destructive. I decided to yield to the suggestion that I attend a grief counselling session at local church. The leader ignored the obvious and greeted me with the question so typical of our times, “How are you doing?”. This hit me as outrageous under the circumstance whereupon I said “If I were doing worth a damn do you think I would be here?”. I turned and left and never came back. Whatever went with “It is so good to see you”, “We are so glad you could join us” or just simply “Welcome to our little group”. I hope I never hear “Don’t you wish you could live it over so you could have done differently?”. God alone knows how many time I have accused my self with that one. I must have thought of a thousand things that I could have done that would have changed the outcome. Worse yet is, “It was God’s will that your loved one lay on a bed racked with pain and died a horrible death”. I could no more believe that than I could believe that it was God’s will that a drunk driver would crash into a van load of innocent children. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s mind is higher than our minds wrote the prophet Isaiah. If you will but look for those wonderful words of comfort contained in the scriptures, you will find a God far larger than you ever imagined and the peace of mind to help you through the worst of times.
To the grieving caregiver presently caught up in the throes of grief and self accusation, I send my best wishes for peace of mind. Do not waste your time dwelling on things you might have done differently. It is not likely that there was a single thing that you could have done differently to alter the outcome. Remember instead what a comfort it was to your love one just knowing you cared. If you want to lay blame, then lay it on a monstrous, son of a bitch of a disease that we all need to work together to vanquish from the face of the earth. The truth is, you never did anything all that wrong. I suggest you consider putting what you learned to good use. Make lemonade out of this lemon. You now have all the right qualifications. You will find a great need for you in the fight and it won’t be far from your doorstep. You have no idea just what an angel of mercy you can be to a suffering neighbor, not next month or next year, but in the here and now.
I expect that God has a special reward stored up awaiting the caregivers and they won’t have to wait until they die to start enjoying it. As to exactly who does care for the caregivers, why not let it be you? You have the very real prospect of losing your grief in the act of helping others deal with theirs.