From a CanTeen YP to the community

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Sally-CanTeen

Just to explain to folk, I am Sally, a counsellor here at CanTeen. This letter was written by a CanTeen member who wishes to remain anonymous but really wanted to share this with everyone. If you want to chat after reading this, just send us a private message.

Dear Canteen member,

My counsellor at Canteen, Sally, thought it might be a good idea for me to write this letter. I found it helpful to read a letter from another Canteen member who had been bereaved, and so I hope that you find this helpful too. A quick note though that everyone’s experience is different, and if there are things in this letter that don’t resonate with you then that’s totally normal.

It’s three months to the day today since my dad died. He passed away on 30th April 2019 after a 2 and a half year battle with melanoma. He was diagnosed just before my 21st birthday with Stage 3B melanoma in July 2016, which then progressed into Stage 4, a terminal diagnosis, in March 2017. I remember going through so many different emotions throughout his treatment process, and remember the days when I got more bad news, which kept on coming. Dad always was in the minority for everything: he had a melanoma cut out years ago and was told that there was a 99% chance they’d caught it early enough that he’d never have any other issues; then his first treatment had a 60% chance of working but it did nothing for him and his cancer just got worse. He tried so many different treatments but only one of them ever made any improvements. It worked for about 6 months in 2018, and made the tumours go dormant, but then stopped working. June 2018, two days before I was going overseas for a month-long study abroad course in London, we were told that the cancers had spread to his brain. At Christmas in 2018, we heard that the brain cancers were getting worse and they’d exhausted most of the treatment options available. The last option was a chemotherapy drug that cost $6000 every time he received it, which was every three weeks. He got brain surgery in January 2019, but then in March his oncologist told him that the tumours were still growing while on treatment and that there were no other options. A little while later he went into hospital and passed away in the middle of the night.

When I went on the Good Grief camp last weekend, one of the things we had to do was think about qualities or values we share with the loved one we lost. When I thought about Dad, I realised that one of his defining qualities was his perseverance. He preserved for so long during treatment, and even after being told that there were no more options he looked for others to give him more time. He was a doctor, so read journal articles and contacted doctors in Israel and California to see if there were any experimental options available there. In the end, the only thing that stopped him from trying every possibility was that he wanted to be at home and with me, my brother and half-brother, and his wife.

We were pretty lucky, when I look back on it. We had so much more time with Dad than I ever expected, and than would have ever been possible a few years ago with metastatic melanoma. He got to come to my university graduation, which was a milestone I never thought he’d see. While I know he’ll never be there at any other big milestones in the future, like getting married and having kids, at least he was there at my graduation and we got to make some memories.

But, despite having more time and thinking I was prepared for his death, nothing can ever prepare you for the loss of someone you love, whether a parent, sibling or other close person. Its just this sense of permanence – he is permanently gone, there’s no coming back, there’s nothing anyone can do to bring him back, and I will never be able to see him again. Sometimes it hits me when I’m walking home from uni and want to call him and tell him about my day, or a new job I got, or interviews for internships – and I just can’t. He will never pick up the phone again. I’ll never get to have dinner with him or a hug or do any of that, and its fucking shit. There’s nothing I can say to sugar-coat it – it sucks losing someone. And as much as someone might say they understand, no ne truly understands the feeling of grief and loss unless they’ve lost someone close to them.

My counsellor Sally keeps telling me that she thinks its impressive how well I’ve handled things, and I think she hopes I can share some wisdom with whoever reads this. To tell the truth, I think I’ve just been pushing myself back into uni, work, socialising, sport and everything else life has to offer so that I can ignore my grief and not think about it. I think I’m doing pretty well, all things considered, but a lot of it is a mask and a distraction. But I’m learning that its not healthy to be too focused on the life stuff – sometimes you just need to find a space to feel all of your feelings. That might be by listening to sad music (I have a playlist on spotify called ‘sad’ – would recommend Lea Michele’s ‘If you say so’), watching sad movies, looking through old photos, going to see a counsellor, or talking to others who have shared the experience. It’s really hard to feel the feelings, so its easy to try to distract yourself, but I’m learning that you need to try to give yourself permission to feel the feelings and take time out of life to do so. It’s a process, and you have to learn what works for you, but these are a few of the things that have helped me so far:

Firstly, listen to your body. If its saying you need to go for a run, go for a run. If its saying you need more sleep, then stay in bed a bit longer. If you need to socialise or can’t stand the idea of being around people, do that. If you can’t stand the idea of eating anything except a particular comfort food, then who cares if you’ve got food in the fridge, or if you’ve ordered takeaway twice already this week, or if its not healthy – just do it.

Secondly, celebrate the little achievements and do what feels ok on each day. Everything changes day to day – some days might be great and some might be the worst you’ve ever experienced. On the bad days, I’m often proud of myself for just getting out of bed and getting dressed. Maybe I got to a class but didn’t take any notes, or maybe I only got out of the house to walk to the shops for milk. All of those things are huge achievements on the bad days, so be proud of yourself if you’ve done some of these. Give yourself permission to skip classes or cancel dinner with friends if that’s what you need to do, and if you’ve got good people around you they’ll understand. But maybe some days push yourself to go get coffee with a friend, or do some of the chores, and you might find yourself feeling better for it.

Thirdly, learn what makes you feel better. For me, I love baking, walking my dog, going to cheerleading training and watching a chick flick with my housemate. I hope you have Netflix or something similar, because I’ve watched more Netflix in the last few months than ever before. I like reading, but I’ve found I can’t concentrate for very long so need books that are entertaining and easy to read. I’ve gone back to old TV shows and movies I used to love like comfort blankets. Know when you need to take an afternoon off and just watch TV, and know that you have some of these comforting things available for when you need it. Sometimes however I’m so sad and I miss my dad so much that nothing can make me feel better, and that’s ok too. You’re not going to feel better straight away, and some days it’ll hit you like a stack of bricks regardless of how long its been since they died.

Fourthly, learn when to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to. It might be saying to your housemate that you haven’t got anything to eat for dinner and can’t face cooking, would she mind sharing her dinner. It might be realising that you weren’t as ready to go back to uni as you thought and you need to drop a subject, as I did. It might be realising that you really do need to talk to a counsellor at Canteen or that it would help to meet others in the same situation by going to a Canteen event. I can’t promise that it will be easy asking for help or that everyone will be understanding, but in my experience pretty much everyone is understanding and wants to help.

Finally, know that grief is not linear, its not five stages, its not the same for everyone, and everyone expresses it differently. I’ve been feeling confused and guilty lately that I haven’t been grieving like the stereotype you see in movies – shutting down, crying into the pillow and not able to live without the person. Whatever you do is normal, and the stereotypes are wrong. So what that I don’t cry much and I’m back at work and uni? That doesn’t mean I miss my dad any less or love him any less. It doesn’t mean that my life hasn’t completely changed or that I’m not grieving. I am, but in my own way. It also doesn’t matter that I have happy days – there is no time limit on grief and no requirement that you’re sad all the time. I saw an analogy where grief is a ball in a box: at the start the ball is huge and hits the sides of the box all the time, which means you feel grief all the time. Over time though the ball gets smaller – it’ll still bounce around and hit the sides of the box occasionally, but because its smaller it’ll hit the sides less. You’re never going to stop feeling grief, but sometimes it’ll be worse and sometimes it’ll be better. Dad’s birthday, the monthly anniversary of his death, and my birthday have all been really tough times. I know that in the future when I hit those milestones like getting new jobs, having kids and getting married will hurt a lot because I’ll miss him so much and wish he was there. But for now, I’m having some good days, some ok days and some bad days, and that’s all ok.

I hope that you have people around you who are supporting you. If not, know that wherever you live there is the Canteen community around the country with plenty of people who have had a very similar experience, and that you can meet them at Canteen events or go online to Canteen Connect and chat with others. It’s going to take some time for things to feel ok again and no matter what anyone else says its going to be pretty shitty and awful for a while. That’s ok. Give yourself permission to feel that way and know that whatever you feel is ok. There is no normal with grief. I hope that reading this letter has helped in a little way, even if its just knowing that what you’re going through is really hard and that there are others out there who recognise how hard it is because they’ve gone through it too.

I wish you all the best in your journey through this, and I have faith that you will get through this. Your grief will always be with you and will be a part of your bookshelf forever. But one day you’ll fill your bookshelf with loads of other books – new loves, friendships, a career – so that you’ll still have the book of grief for your loved one, but it’ll sit along other great things in your life.

Lots of love,

A friend from Canteen.