Before I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of forty-eight, I had passed grief by like a stranger on the street. I had reserved it for death and heartbreak, the shattering losses that bend us double, but not for the regrets, disappointments and failures that also ask us to grieve. I thought it brought closure, but now I know that grief is a genesis, not a finale. It gives life.
The news of my condition unfolded over a six-week period, one tumor at a time. First my lungs; then the lymph nodes in my throat and chest; then my bones – ribs, shoulders, spine; and finally, multiple lesions in my brain. My options seemed extremely limited, but I soon heard about a pioneering oncologist in Mexico who was reversing late stage cancer and didn’t turn patients down. After emailing him my scan results we clung to this whisper of possibility, waiting for it to mature into certainty. The call didn’t come for two weeks.
My husband, John, took it while I was putting our four-year old daughter, Gabriella, to bed. I could hear the sound of his voice downstairs, but the words were muffled so I focused on her bedtime story and helping her fall asleep. This involved lying next to her while she snuggled into my armpit and kneed me in the ribs a dozen times before her perpetually moving legs finally gave up the ghost. When she looked up at me and said, “Mummy, my legs won’t let me sleep,” I wondered where they would carry her in the future and if I would be there to see it. I wondered. I yearned. I prayed.
John said walking up the stairs that evening was the steepest climb of his life. He had to tell me that the oncologist who doesn’t turn patients down had turned me down; that I was that far gone.
Grief didn’t burst its banks when he told me. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Instead it visited us like a living entity and enfolded my whole family in its blanket. John was desolate. It had taken us so many years to find each other and he loves me so much. But his pain distracted me from mine. I could attend to it instead of cratering inside. I could kiss the top of Gabriella’s head, pull him onto the bed with us and take what this moment had to offer: the great love we had found, the scale of which could only be matched by the sorrow we felt at the prospect of leaving each other after too short an embrace on earth; and our high voltage daughter, who wears her father’s smile as she explodes towards tomorrow and whose legs have a life of their own.
Grief became my guest and an almost constant companion. I was letting go of what I had achieved in life (like conceiving Gabriella after being told I couldn’t have children) while lamenting what I hadn’t achieved and wouldn’t: buying a forever home for my family when I could finally afford it; withering with my husband into beneficent old age while our daughter rises into her purpose like a blood-red sun on a black-and-silver sea; writing books. Each day brought another letting go. The vision in my left eye faded. I forgot how to spell simple words and sometimes forgot the words themselves. I closed the consulting business I had spent twenty years building. I stopped driving my car. The large tumor on my C3 vertebra, at the midpoint of my neck, pressed against my spinal column and truncated my countryside walks until I could only putter around the garden. And the day came when I couldn’t pick up my daughter from a standing position - which was almost more than I could bear.
With each loss I turned towards grief instead of away from it, and began to discover its true nature. This was partly prompted by discovering that, according to Chinese Medicine, grief is held in the lungs. Since I had lung cancer, this begged the question, “What have I not been grieving and why?” I was convinced that cancer is as much an emotional and psychological disease as it is a physical one, so this line of inquiry seemed as essential to my healing as the medical treatments that slowly began to turn things around. My cancer needed me to grieve and I needed cancer to discover my grief.
The biggest breakthrough came when I visited a small herd of horses in a field just a few minutes’ walk from my house. I had grown up with horses in the lush green valleys of South Wales, where galloping into the wind over the vaulted hills was the best way I knew how to silence the incessant inner self-criticism that marked my teenage years. I continued riding as an adult, usually on vacation, and it had remained one of my greatest joys in life. That day, just a few weeks after the Mexican doctor turned me down, the horses walked up and encircled me, like the standing stones of Stonehenge. Initially, I was delighted, but as I stroked their soft necks I realized I would never ride again because my tumor-clad spine couldn’t tolerate any jarring. And thus, in a wet field on a cold winter day, my heart broke like a levee with grief.
Far from dragging me down, however, grief raised me up. As it rolled through my cells I felt lighter, freer and literally more able to breathe. My body continued to break down for a while, but my heart’s locked-in hurts began to heal. I was able to forgive those I hadn’t forgiven, from the girl who bullied me in the playground as an eight-year old to the various sexual assaults I had discounted because I didn’t want to make a fuss. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to forgive myself. I knew the part I had played in my disease, the ways I had mistreated my body through my teens and twenties, the relentless bending my life into an apology for my blessings as well as my flaws. Physically, I could barely turn my head from side to side, but emotionally I was beginning to lift it without shame.
There is a “break” in the word ‘breakthrough’ – something must break in order for something new to grow. This is what grief does. It broke my denial, restoring me to the stark naked reality of what I was facing and thus to the natural order of things. It offered a bridge from the life I had planned to the life I was actually living. Where fear closed my heart, grief opened it. It drew back the curtain on what I have loved and do love. Because its purpose is to keep love alive.
When some of the long-standing friends I had assumed would show up with vegetable casseroles retreated from my imminent demise in awkward silence, I felt hurt and angry - until grief came. It released them as gratefully as it received the friends I had long since alienated or lost touch with. They reappeared with gentle eyes and ready hands as if the years between were merely parentheses in an unfinished sentence. All of it liberated me to love more honestly. And thanks to grief, the authentic intimacies of my life prevailed.
Within three months of medical treatments and emotional healing my life force returned along with my vision and ability to spell. I can pick up my now six-year old daughter. I even galloped a dappled grey horse along a Moroccan beach. I wrote a book. I am still living with the death sentence I was given over two years ago, but it keeps the channels of grief open, which rise and fall like a tide, but always deliver me back to the shores of what I cherish most. My greatest wish is for cancer to leave me so I can raise my darling girl until she is self-assured enough to run headlong into her destiny. But I hope grief remains. My love is less without it. Not entirely itself.
Grief is the most unlikely gift cancer has conferred on me. It walked me through the fog of my despair into a vast landscape where I could see the heavens overhead and feel the mercies underfoot. Grief freed my spirit before it left my body and, in a very real sense, it raised me from the dead.