Grieving and Coping with Death and the Breast Cancer Struggle

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • Last spring I wrote a series of shareposts called Writing Your Way through Cancer.  Part I:  Get Organized” offers advice about keeping track of all the information that bombards cancer patients.  Part II:  Share Your News” discusses using e-mail, blogs, and other methods for communicating about your cancer with family and friends.  In honor of April’s National Poetry Month, “Part III: Create a Poem” includes resources for using poetry to express the emotions that accompany cancer.  Part IV:  Keep a Journal” explains the benefits of journaling.  By the time I shared the importance of communicating with others who have a similar diagnosis in “Part V: Connect with Others,” I was sure I had said everything there is to say about writing your way through cancer.

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    I was wrong.  I forgot a really important writing situation—expressing grief.  Six months after my father died, I got a letter from Montgomery Hospice, the hospice who took care of my father in his final three months.  The letter discusses some of the bereavement groups they offer and makes the suggestion that writing is a good way to cope with the continued feelings of grief that recur long after a death.


    The letter explained that journaling is “especially helpful when you awaken at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and cannot call a friend, neighbor or family member, but you can write what you are feeling and thinking.  Writing is another way of externalizing some of our internal feelings and putting them out there, where we can think about them and clarify them.”


    Although breast cancer no longer equals death, all too many in the breast cancer community are survivors, not because they have conquered breast cancer, but because they live on after the death of someone they love.  For these survivors, writing can be a tremendous outlet for grief.


    The bereaved have a complicated mixture of anger, regrets, joy, pride, and questions about their life with the one who died.  Some of those are much too private to share with anyone else, but they still need to be expressed.  Writing them down can help.  Other memories can be written down to share with future generations as a way of keeping the legacy of the deceased alive.


    Here are a few of the topics Montgomery Hospice suggests to get started:

    • Special memories I have of you
    • What I miss most about you and our relationship
    • What I wish I had or had not said
    • What I would like to ask or tell you
    • What I have had the hardest time dealing with
    • Ways in which you will continue to live on in me 


    The letter came from Montgomery Hospice over a month ago, but I haven’t tried to write about my father since we put together a biography and slide show at the time of his death.  So here goes:


    Dear Daddy,  It’s spring, and our strawberry plants are green and bushy.  I remember how you, a boy from the Bronx, were always so proud of your strawberries and blueberries.  Our little lot on Belvedere Boulevard had strawberries, grape vines, an apple tree, and a peach tree as well as your beloved lilacs.  When you got a little more space later, you added blueberries and blackberries to the Hacken farm.  Even after you moved into the apartment, you kept a collection of house plants going.  I wish I had asked you how you got so interested in growing things, but I want you to know that your love for plants lives on in me. This year looks like a good one for our strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and grapes.  I remember you every day, but I’ll be especially thankful for your influence in my life at harvest time.

Published On: April 10, 2010