This morning I came across an article written by a 24-year-old woman with cancer.
At 24 I was still unable to authentically grasp what it meant for one to suddenly be stricken with a deadly illness. Death and dying were for old people, or characters in books and movies. I moved through my days as a carefree optimist—I laughed a lot and found the rosy side in any pesky little roadblock along my way.
I stayed this way throughout my twenties and most of my thirties, until a turning point in graduate school slowed down my exuberance and had me considering a side of things that I had not allowed myself to consider before. In the article above, the author suggests that the lines between positive thinking and denial can often be blurred; that struck me as a good possibility of what had been going on in my young mind.
I was fortunate enough that after the death of my father in 1978, I escaped the trauma of losing anyone else close to me until 2011 when my grandmother died. I never went to counseling or spoke with anyone about my father’s death—but I think that was normal back then. Today it would be unheard of not to put an eight-year-old in therapy after the death of a parent. Back then, the idea was to distract the child, don’t let her think about it—keep her busy and she’ll forget; children are resilient, they bounce back.
That was true for me I think, for many years. I “forgot” to the extent that I desensitized, as many people I cared about watched their loved ones suffer through illness, or lost them in tragic ways. I cared, of course. I was sad for them. “I can’t fathom it,” I’ve said too many times to count. I’ve avoided funerals that I had no business missing. I’ve failed to adequately offer condolences in the hopes that people would be so preoccupied that they wouldn’t notice. The truth is, the anxiety I feel over this process is so overwhelming that I’ll go to extremes to get out of it. It’s not something I’m proud of.
During a conversation a few years ago with my friend Deirdre, my father’s death came up in conversation. As the mother of three, she was horrified at the thought that I lost my father as an eight-year-old little girl. She was also shocked that she had never known this. Dee and I lived together for nearly three years in the 1990s, and I had never told her that my father died when I was little. How is that possible?
It’s possible because I downsized and compartmentalized the reality of it so well that I even convinced myself it wasn’t important. I know now that it was not only important; it was astronomically significant in shaping the person I am today. I’m fine, really—I have a good grasp of how issues that I deal with directly relate back to this traumatic event in my life, and I’m proactive now in changing the behaviors and thought patterns that resulted from it.
My grandmother’s death in May 2011 was the first loss of someone I loved and had a close relationship to as an adult. How lucky am I to be able to say this at 41? I had a hard time with her death and can almost categorize my thoughts about mortality as before grandma/after grandma. When I thought about the fact that she just simply didn’t exist anymore I would get so freaked out I could hardly breathe. For months afterward when I visited home, I would—for just a second—plan a visit to grandma into the trip.
The other night, I had the first dream that I can ever remember about her. In it, it was my mom’s birthday, and grandma was showing me the gift she bought for mom. It was a black box with gold trim holding a deck of cards that cost $1,000. She explained to me that she drove to the new casino downtown to buy it, and had a hard time finding parking. This is hilarious in itself, both the idea that she bought my mom a gift (at all, let alone for 1k), and that she would drive to the casino to pick it up.
I opened the box and took out the cards. They were mismatched and out of order. There were other pieces of paper in with the cards…they were all bent and wrinkled. I instantly panicked, as though I messed them up by opening the box, and I tried to organize them.
As I was setting the cards on the table, struggling to put them in some sort of order that made sense, my brother Jim came over. I explained to him what I was doing. I told him, “Grandma bought these at the casino for mom. They’re a mess, I have to fix them.” Then I realized that my mom was sitting at the table and had heard me and seen the cards strewn all over, and I felt sick that I ruined the surprise for her.
Saul prompted me think about what this dream might mean. I usually think that dreams are just a random display of some latent thoughts we’ve had during the day. What do you think? What can this dream mean?
Am I thinking of grandma because of the fears I have right now for people I care about? Family members and friends are sick, but I do my best not to think about this (positive thinking and denial).
What does it mean that I made a mess of something intended for my mom-and that she found out before I could fix it?
I’m no longer walking through life without a care, or always looking on the bright side. It’s like I’m making up for lost time now worrying with such ferocity to cover for two and a half decades. How do I find a balance? How do you keep from dwelling on the worst-case scenario—when you’ve experienced first hand that the worst case scenario does happen? How do I offer support and encouragement to my husband as he deals with loss and sickness in the people he loves most—when I’m Debbie Downer all the time?
Tell me what you do. I know many of you have endured far worse than I have, and been stronger and come out better from it than I.