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Loss and Grief

Understanding loss and grief when there is a cancer diagnosis

What is grief

Whenever there is a loss of something important such as your health, functioning or abilities or someone important, you may feel varying amounts of loss and grief. Some losses are more difficult than others. Acknowledging these losses, or grieving, can be part of the cancer experience. Grieving is more than typical sadness. It is a natural and expected process which happens over a long period of time and can include a wide range of reactions, thoughts and feelings. 

Even though grieving can be painful, it is important to remember that expressing your grief helps you adjust, accept and understand your losses. Grieving allows you to accept losing a meaningful part of your life and continue with your life in a different, but healthy way.  Often the depth of the grief reflects the richness or the value of what is lost. Part of the grief is a desire to have things back to “the way they were” for your family, your friends and others. 

Not everyone experiences grief in the same way. Grief is unique to each individual in how long it lasts, how intense it is and what it means. Even two people who have similar diagnoses and treatments may respond differently to what has happened.

How, when and what people grieve depends on many things. These can include your age or stage in life, your previous experiences with loss and grief and the amount of social support you have. Knowing there may be future losses can also trigger feelings of grief before the actual loss has occurred.


For more information go to Helpful handouts 

 

Being diagnosed and treated for cancer can be traumatic. In the beginning, you tend to focus on problem solving, such as arranging appointments as soon as possible, canceling or postponing other commitments, deciding among treatment options, and getting through the treatments. As treatment continues or ends, you may realize you have feelings and reactions of grief to the losses you are experiencing.

Multiple experiences of loss and grief happen throughout the cancer experience, from diagnosis to treatment to post-treatment. The loss may be temporary or permanent, life-altering or a minor inconvenience.

Here are some examples that people with cancer have described:

Physical losses

  • A part of your body or a body function, including your thinking
  • Sexual changes, including sexual ability and fertility
  • Energy
  • An ability or skill to perform certain activities (i.e. driving)
  • Physical comfort due to treatment or symptoms

Emotional/spiritual losses

  • Sense of security (in your health, in your future)
  • Sense of control or independence
  • Self-esteem or sense of identity
  • Self-confidence
  • Goals, hopes or dreams
  • Faith or spirituality
  • Your sense of life as safe and predictable
  • Routines and rhythm, or life “the way it used to be”

Social/relationship losses

  • Relationships with friends, family members or co-workers
  • Intimate relationships
  • Loss of certain roles (i.e. you can no longer earn money for your family, or you can no longer prepare all of the family meals)
  • Loss of other people with cancer you know and meet during your treatment

Financial losses

  • Job or job opportunities
  • Financial security
  • Insurance
  • Ability to work

Moving forward

Moving through grief has been compared to healing from a physical injury. What you experience immediately after the injury can be quite different from your experience one year later. There can still be an impact. You might have a scar or a sensitive part of your body that continues to connect you to what happened.

Sometimes, people worry they are “getting stuck” or not coping well with the grief. You may also wonder how long the grieving process will last and when you can expect to start feeling better again. There is no single answer to this question. There are some common experiences through this journey. It’s important to remember that steps are similar but not identical for each loss or each person grieving the loss. 


For more information go to Helpful handouts

 

Talking to others about your feelings

Even though talking with others about your experiences of loss and grief may be difficult, it is important. People around you may not recognize your losses or your grief. It can be hard to acknowledge loss and grief when others see you as someone who should be grateful to be alive, regardless of what has happened. Grief can also be hard to acknowledge when others find it difficult or impossible to listen to the intense feelings that can come with grief.

If your friends or family members act like they don’t want to talk to you, remember that they may not be used to talking about grief. They may really want to help you, but don’t know how. You can explain to them that you need someone to listen to you and support you. That you don’t expect them to make everything better, you just need them to listen to you. It may not be easy, but it is important to let others know what you need.

It may seem strange to suggest that you might have to be the one to reach out to others, but many people believe they don’t know how to be supportive and offer comfort during difficult times. They may fear that they will upset you by talking about your losses or the future. We have provided a Fact Sheet called Supporting Someone Who Experiences a Loss Pass, it on to your family and friends.


Be patient with yourself and others who expect you to "get over it." You never really "get over it." It is something you do come to terms with in your life. If you are uncomfortable talking about your loss and grief with your family or friends, a counselor or a support group may be an option.


Grief that is not resolved can lead to depression and can stop you from moving forward in your life. If you feel your grief is interfering with quality of life or friends are expressing concern, consider reaching out for some support from a counsellor.

Loss, grief and the family

Caregivers, family and friends experience loss and grief as well. Your losses can affect the entire family. Family members and friends may experience similar losses to yours and ones that are very different. Each person will have different needs. Family members will need to discuss the effects of these changes, including shifts in roles and responsibilities. It will take time for the family to regain a balance. This is a time to talk with each other about the changes, the losses and how you and your family are adjusting.

 

Feelings of grief can reoccur years after treatment has ended, some examples include: 

  • Sensory reminders, such as taste or smell
  • Routine medical appointments
  • Hearing about another person who has been diagnosed with cancer or who has died from cancer
  • Anniversary events (such as date of diagnosis, date of going off treatment)
  • Important events with family or friends (graduations, birthdays, holidays)
  • Experiencing ongoing losses because of adverse after-effects of treatment
For more information and support go to Life after Cancer

Loss, grief and death

We have discussed many types of losses for you and your family. Much of what we have already included is true if the loss is a death. However, there can be more stressors, expectations and issues when a death is involved. For example, most cultures have mourning rituals associated with death that requires preparation and planning.

Death after a long illness

Grief is experienced somewhat differently when the loss occurs after a long illness rather than suddenly. When someone is terminally ill, family and friends often grieve before the death, in anticipation of the loss. This grieving helps people prepare for the actual loss. Many people believe they will experience less grieving because the death was expected. However, when the death happens, your grief reactions can still be intense and overwhelming. 


For more information and go to Helpful handouts!

 
Finding support

Support at my cancer centre:

Support in my community:

  • BC Bereavement Helpline call toll free1-877-779-2223 or in the Lower Mainland 604-738-9950.
  • Canadian Virtual Hospice
  • Local community centres, hospices and churches

Learn more:

See our "Helpful handouts" in each section for facts and strategies to manage emotions.

Getting support

Support at my cancer centre:
Support in my community:
  • BC Bereavement Helpline call toll free1-877-779-2223 or in the Lower Mainland 604-738-9950.
  • Canadian Virtual Hospice
  • Local community centres, hospices and churches
Learn more:
  • For more patient handouts or information go to Emotional Support Resources
  • Go here for information on financial and practical support information
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