In the last few years I’ve joined a couple of ‘members only‘ clubs. Flashy affairs with exclusive membership criteria that are tough to meet. These clubs have their own form of coded language, a way to identify other members outside the club environment, in the real world, and they have their own protected safe spaces where members can congregate, commune, share lived experiences. This sounds great, you say. How privileged you are. Such exclusivity, such glamour, such elegance. Except these are the clubs where no-one wants to be on the members list. There’s no clamouring wait list of hopeful joiners, ready to pawn their right arm for a key to the door. Because these clubs are cancer and bereavement. Sickness and loss. Physical and emotional trauma. Pain and heartache.
To be honest, before I became an involuntary member of both these clubs, I was, like many of us (especially us Brits) slightly embarrassed and uncomfortable with the idea that they existed. Confronted by recent new club members in the shape of friends who were dealing with grief or sudden serious illness, I was at a loss as to how best respond. It seemed too overwhelming, too big an emotional load to handle, too much of a psychological minefield to cross, knowing that one well-meant but wrong word might set off a messy explosion of grief and pain. It was easier to back off, divert the conversation, steer a path to less loaded and weighty subjects. Looking back now, from within the hallowed halls of these clubs myself, I realise how much I failed those friends who preceded me onto the membership lists. I’ve apologised to many of you in person in recent months. To all the others, I apologise now, unreservedly and wholeheartedly. While I like to think I’m a loyal, loving, supportive friend in general, I have faltered in the past and not always stepped up when needed. I’m so sorry. And to those lost friends who have drifted out of my circle in recent years, presumably frightened by the emotional messiness of the double whammy of cancer and bereavement, I am sad that you’ve left, but I understand. My door is always open.
But the honest truth is, probably even the most empathic of people cannot fully understand what happens beyond the red velvet rope of these exclusive clubs, cancer and/or bereavement, until they are reluctantly admitted themselves. These clubs’ halls are strewn with the shifting sands of fear, anxiety, exhaustion, pain, hope, tears, laughter, loss and recovery. Even from inside the club it’s never clear exactly where your next step is going to land, so how anyone else, still living in the outside world, those ‘muggles’ of the cancer/grief realms, can be expected to plot a path is beyond me.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and lost my Dad at Christmas 2020, I had assumed that those who were facing a life-threatening/life-changing illness or had lost loved ones wouldn’t want to talk about it because it would just be too frightening, too painful. And sometimes that’s definitely true. We don’t always want the conversation to be a grim reminder of our sickness or loss. We want moments where the pain isn’t the sole focus of our lives. But in those days immediately after my diagnosis and bereavement I was surprised by how much I DID want to talk about it. In fact I desperately NEEDED to talk about it, because I knew that if I didn’t talk about my cancer or my Dad openly, then the pent up anger and grief, pain and fear, the constant internalising of worry and sorrow would eventually blow up in my face. Talking about these things is a bit like that thing you do when you’re a kid and your baby teeth are falling out. It can hurt like hell to waggle a loose tooth or poke a tongue into a gappy gum wound. But it’s a surreally pleasant pain, a pain that shows you are still here, growing, changing and, hopefully, healing.
And I had not realised until the days and weeks after I lost my dad that by sharing conversations, about the trauma of a serious illness or the loss of a loved one, that it wasn’t comfort I was searching for. I wasn’t asking friends for a cure for my sorrow. It was the simple act of acknowledgement.
But acknowledgement is hard. Confronted by anguish it is our natural inclination as sympathetic, hope-full human beings to try and help put an end to the pain someone is suffering. It is a noble, kind-hearted, loving gesture. We are creatures who like solutions, who find peace in happy endings (who doesn’t love a ‘and they lived happily ever after’?), who find comfort in resolution and clarity, who want to offer hope to those in dark places. You can hear it in the things we say to friends and family when they face illness and grief: “They’re in a better place now”, “They’re no longer in pain”, “at least it was diagnosed early”, “you’re lucky, breast cancer is so treatable these days”, “just be positive, you’ll beat this”. We offer positivity because we think it will make people feel better. We try to put a spin on a bad news day, to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s not always helpful, and often doesn’t do what we hope it will.
Because, to be honest, I did not want my friends or family to try and offer me hope, solutions, ways out of my grief or anger. I wasn’t ready for that step. I just wanted them to see the pain, acknowledge it was there and sit with me for a while as I talked or, if I didn’t feel like talking, join me in my silence.
On a side bar ‘sitting with’ is a phrase that I’ve heard repeatedly since my breast cancer diagnosis. There’s a recognised psychological benefit in ‘sitting with’ difficult, upsetting, painful emotions. It’s hard. It’s so much easier to push challenging feelings down or away, to pretend they don’t exist or that now is not the right time to confront them. I still do this myself – I avoid looking at my breast cancer surgery scars in the mirror because looking means accepting and even now, 2.5 years post-op, accepting seems an impossible goal. And when I get hit by a sudden wave of grief at an unexpected moment, spotting Dad’s favourite chocolate bar in a supermarket, seeing his slippers in the understairs cupboard where he always left them, I force down the tears because ‘now is not a good time’. My fear has always been that if I started crying, about my cancer or losing Dad, I would just not stop. It’s a silly fear. Of course, I would stop, no-one has ever died from non-stop crying. But the pushing down, the pushing away of the emotion is easier than the ‘sitting with’.
Sometimes by treating illness and grief as a problem to be solved, by putting a positive spin on the story, by trying to cheer someone out of a moment of sadness, we are negating and diminishing those feelings of loss or anxiety. When we try to offer cheerfulness because we think it’s better than being sad, we are saying to the person feeling that sadness that it’s wrong, that what they’re feeling is wrong and they need to be positive, upbeat, ‘look on the bright side’ instead. So right at that point in their lives when they want to be seen and understood, their feelings are, unintentionally, erased. While reaching out for acknowledgment and acceptance, they can find they actually end up feeling more alone than before.
That result is never intentional of course. The way we respond to grief, to upsets of any kind, most usually comes from a place of love. It can just send things in the wrong direction.
This video from ‘Refuge in Grief’ does a far better (and cuter) job of explaining it than I can. Please take a few minutes to watch it.
The simple take away from this is that when people are struggling with difficult emotions around illness and loss, they don’t always want solutions, ideas for practical help or a cheery ‘nudge’ to get them seeing the bright side. What they want is someone to listen, to say (and apologies for the very American phrasing!) ‘I hear you and I’m here with you’, to say ‘I can see the pain that you’re in and I’m not going to try and talk you out of it’. This can be hard, uncomfortable, difficult but it can be so much more supportive and appreciated than you’ll ever understand. In the weeks after losing my Dad, I found most comfort with friends who were also in the exclusive bereavement club. The ones who knew from their own lived experience that waggling that loose tooth, poking that gummy wound, talking about the ones we’d loved and lost, making ourselves cry with sadness and laughter about silly snatches of memory, was where the comfort, the peace lay. After my cancer diagnosis, it was only when I found the amazing world of peer-to-peer Facebook support groups (such as YBCN, BRiC and Diep Reconstruction UK*) that I realised there was an online world of women who just ‘got it’. Who knew that on those days when you were overwhelmed by anxiety and sadness, what you wanted was a virtual hug and a ‘it’s just shit isn’t it?’ rather than an overload of toxic positivity that made you feel guilty for not ‘fighting the battle’ the right way by climbing a mountain or running a marathon in a pink tutu.
Now, of course, there are times when a creative, practical solution or a ‘cheer up dude, let’s go get drunk’ might be exactly what is being sought. I have many friends who are highly skilled in the solution-finding, problem-solving, ‘let’s snap you out of the doldrums’ department and they are on speed dial. But the hard bit is working out what’s needed in that moment. Is the friend who is struggling looking for a hug or a route map out of their situation? Do they want a few moments of silent hand-holding or a kick up the butt and a vat of prosecco? While trawling through Twitter a while back I found this excellent suggestion for picking your way through the emotional minefield of a friend’s sadness. Maybe we should all take a leaf out of this couple’s book:
Maybe the next time a friend is having a difficult time, and it doesn’t even have to be cancer or bereavement related, it could just be a rubbish day at work or a tricky patch in a relationship, maybe the best thing would be to ask “comfort or solution?”. If it’s comfort, sit with them in their pain and know that your acknowledgement of that pain is enough. If it’s solution, get your thinking cap on and your wine glasses out. Comfort or solution? Comfort or solution? A mantra to live by.
*YBCN (Younger Breast Cancer Network), BRiC (Building Resilience in Breast Cancer), DIEP Reconstruction UK are closed, private Facebook groups for women with breast cancer. If you have had a breast cancer diagnosis and are looking for support, message these groups via their main Facebook pages to be added to their closed groups.