I was only six years old when I first heard the word. Before that, I had no idea what it was nor did I know what it could do to a person, to a family. I was too young to comprehend all of the trips to the doctor, the way it could make someone feel so tired, or the way it would cause so much pain. I didn’t understand…I, now, sometimes don’t understand.
My memory may be a bit foggy because I was so young and because I wasn’t fully of aware of everything around me. I was only a child. I was about six years old when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in white blood cells call lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system. This type of cancer is most common among people 60 years or older. So why would it happen to a healthy woman in her 30s? This is a question I’ve asked for years and have yet to find the answer. I have, however, found answers to many other questions over the last two decades and have also learned many lessons along the way.
1. Grief can surprise you. I was nine years old when my mother passed away. As a young boy, there was almost no way I could comprehend the death of a person, especially a parent. Fast forward ten years and you have a teenage college student who was trying to figure out how to navigate life. Now add this overwhelming feeling of grief and sadness. It took 10 years for me to begin to process and I wasn’t sure what was impacting me so much. It took some time to figure it all out and I needed professional help to do so. Fast forward another ten years and I’m still surprised when those feelings come rushing back. Now, I’m prepared and know the steps to take to work through the emotions.
2. Don’t hide from your thoughts. No matter how you feel or what you think about something, it’s important to acknowledge your thoughts and emotions and to dedicate the time and energy into processing and allowing your self to feel. There will be times when you don’t think you can handle the rush of emotions but it will pass and you will be a better person, one who is more capable of healing than before.
3. Go away once in a while. Take a trip, drive somewhere for the weekend, do something that breaks you away from reality and allows the time and space to clear your mind. Life can become overwhelming and chaotic. Its unhealthy to ignore your own needs and to deprive yourself of that free time for self-care. I have been a victim of burnout and have waited too long to take that break. As a therapist, I know how important self-care is and how it will help me become a more productive clinician and overall human being. Just do something fun, something that requires little intellectual power. Or, if stimulating your brain is what ultimately relaxes you, do something to challenge your mind.
4. It’s OK to be alone. We all need peace and quiet once in a while and being alone is not unhealthy when done in moderation (it’s just like a good diet – balanced and controlled). If going away alone is your thing, take that trip to the beach or go for that hike – just make sure someone knows where you’re going, please. Human beings need contact with others to remain healthy, physically and mentally, but sometimes the stimulation becomes too much and our minds need to reboot. There is nothing wrong with time alone; just make sure it’s not all of the time.
5. Save things attached to memories. Mementos are priceless. Movie stubs, concert tickets, holiday and birthday cards all have some meaning and remind us of a specific memory. Sure, you don’t need to have “things” to have memories but the physical reminder triggers that memory and we remember more often. Over the years I’ve built a collection of greeting cards, game passes, theater tickets, and race ribbons (from the small handful of 5K races I’ve convinced myself to run). I keep a small box of the more fragile items and display the larger ones (those race ribbons are very prominently displayed in my living room in an effort to remind me to run once in a while – they don’t work too well) for others to see. They act as conversation starters and keep me motivated to spend more time with friends and family and to continue to make new memories.
6. It’s OK to forget. Sometimes memories will become less vivid and we won’t be able to recall every detail. I can no longer remember the sound of my mother’s voice or imagine the feeling of her hugs. I don’t have the ability to visualize her face without the help of a photo. These things sometimes frustrate me and I remind myself of how young I was and how long ago she passed away. The reality is our lives go on and our brains can only access so much information. The memories may not have disappeared but we just can’t replay them as easily, or at all, compared to before. It’s OK to forget memories; it’s necessary so new memories can be stored (watch the movie “Inside Out” and you’ll understand what I’m talking about).
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If there’s one major lesson I’ve learned over the last two decades, it’s to never fear the need to ask for help from others. Nobody is perfect, which means nobody is capable of solving every challenge they face. There are times when the solution to a problem is not visible to ourselves. Our personal barriers prevent us from seeing clearly and distort reality. Our families and friends are our support and they will be there when we ask for their help.
I’ve learned many more than these seven lessons in 20 years but these are the most important seven in my life at this present moment. Some have become more important over time and others are newly found lessons that have important roles in my life. No matter how long they remain current, they will always be on my list.
Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the day my mom passed away. Though many of my memories are faded, I will always remember how strong, brave, kind, caring, and tenacious my mother was. I had her in my life for only nine years but I’d like to think she somehow has influenced who I’ve become as a person. I will forever miss her and leave a part of my heard dedicated to her memory, no matter how many more decades pass and no matter how chaotic life may be.
I love you, Mom, forever and always, truly.
Your son, Steven