All my life, I’ve hidden parts of myself that were “sad” or “negative” in fear that my story would just bring the room down. I mean, who wants to be that girl who brings up her dead dad when someone asks, “So what do your parents do?” Ugh, I dreaded this kind of small talk.
I’m not gonna sugarcoat it at all; losing two family members to cancer absolutely sucks. It has truly been the hardest thing for me to go through, and to have to go through it twice has been absolute hell. I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy. But avoiding social situations surrounding conversations about my family made it so much harder for me to cope with my dad and sister’s deaths.
After my sister’s death in 2003, I avoided talking about her in fear of breaking down in front of whomever I was speaking to. I mean, I lost my only sister, and seeing my friends with their sisters just absolutely broke me.
The question I hated answering after losing my sister to cancer when I was only 8 years old. At one point, I just started saying I only had one sibling (my brother), so I wouldn’t have to talk about my sister’s death. Thinking about that now makes me sick, and it breaks my heart. But I was just a little girl trying to navigate my way through elementary school when my sister died — that breaks my heart even more.
Fast forward to June of 2015, where I was moving into my first house with my best friends in college. I called my mom to ask her about something for college registration, and I’ll never forget the fear in her voice as she answered the phone. She told me that my dad had just had a stroke before I called, and that they were on the way to the hospital.
My world dropped when I heard this. To make it worse? I arrived at the hospital and the doctors were talking to my mom about the dreaded “c” word. I hadn’t heard that word spoken towards my family in over a decade, and to hear the doctor say that my dad could possibly have cancer made me want to just crawl into a hole. I mean, my dad? MY dad? WHY MY DAD? Didn’t the cancer card already get played here? WHY do we have to go through this again?! So many questions were going through my head, I felt like I was going to explode.
I’ll skip the very horrible details, but will say that my dad lost his battle to cancer on July 29, 2015 — only two months after being diagnosed. He passed peacefully in his sleep in comfort care after our family and doctors decided that the medications and procedures were too much on his body. One memory I will always take with me is the fact that I was the only one in the room when my father passed, meaning I witnessed the very moment my father stopped breathing. At first, this memory haunted me because I was reliving the moment my father died…but I now cherish this memory and am so happy that I got to spend those last moments with him.
Even though these memories were two of the lowest points of my life, I can now say that I am more resilient because of them. After lots of reflecting, almost a year of weekly therapy, and time, I am now at a better place mentally when remembering my dad and my sister.
I owe a huge amount of my growth to my amazing therapist (S/o Miriam!). She gave me the toolbox to cope with the things in my life that I have no control over (no matter how hard I try). For anyone out there going through a similar time, here’s some things I’ve learned:
Some things in life are simply uncontrollable, but what we can control is how we react to it. Losing my dad and sister made me feel like I had no control over things in my life. Taking a step back and remembering that I can choose how I react helps me recall memories of my family without spiraling into an anxiety attack.
Dwelling on the past removes you from the present. Intrusive thoughts and memories were a huge problem for me after losing my dad; I felt like I couldn’t think of anything else except for the trauma. I felt like a shell of myself in public, just lost in my thoughts. I was not present in conversations and I felt extremely emotionally drained. I worked through this through mindfulness practices. Meditation helped me immensely on being more present in my life. I also practice these mindfulness exercises as much as I can.
Nature has a healing power that we just can’t explain. After my dad died, I went on a spontaneous road trip to Big Sur with my boyfriend to get away from life for a bit and reflect. I remember being in that environment and just shedding bursts of tears at random moments — in awe of how beautiful it was and just how precious life is. Part of me cried wishing my dad was there to see it, while part of me cried knowing I was lucky to be alive and able to live in that moment. Like I said, I just can’t explain that feeling nature gives you.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. As cheesy as it is, it couldn’t be more true. I am so much more resilient and emotionally stronger after dealing with these tragedies. It’s no joke that I’ve gone through some rough sh*t in my 24 years on this Earth, and I’ll probably go through some more. But I know I’ll be able to make it through because well..I’ve made it this far!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I always always ALWAYS rave about the benefits of therapy. If you have access to a therapist, I highly suggest that you take it up. It took me a year to actually get myself to get the courage and commit to seeing someone, but once I did, I never looked back.
If you don’t have access to seeing a therapist, try and work up the courage to be able to open up to those close to you and explain a little more about what you’re going through. Chances are that they’re afraid to ask about it, and who can blame them? It’s a tough situation to work through, but communicating through it helps!
I remember when I couldn’t even say the words, “My dad is dead” out loud to someone without breaking down in tears by the first or second word. Then one day I found myself talking about him with someone without any voice shakes or intrusive thoughts. Sure, there’s still some anxiety, but I know how to deal with it now so it doesn’t completely ruin my entire day. I still miss my dad and my sister every damn day, and I am so much stronger today because I had the opportunity to have them in my life. To anyone out there going through a similar time, it’ll get better. Time will make it better and easier.