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Living with grief: Saying goodbye to a parent who battled “the good” cancer

A personal journey of experiencing grief for the first time, learning to live again and letting go of what I cannot control.

I was 11 years old when my father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I remember it clearly. The pink shirt I was wearing. My mother sitting me down on the sofa repeating what the doctor had said, “This is curable! If you get cancer, this is the one you want! They’ll take out his thyroid and he will be okay!”

On May 27, 2019 – nearly 17 years later and no remission  – my father passed away from thyroid cancer in the intensive care unit. Watching him waste away was painful. A brilliant man who took his last breath at a frail 90 pounds from a cancer that spread with a vengeance over nearly two decades. I was devastated, traumatized and angry. 

But, this isn’t about the cancer or the chemo. This about the grief. The grief I still feel engulfing me at 50 days out. What I’ve learned in 50 days – the good, the bad, the ugly. This is about sharing my story so others will know they are not alone. This is what I have learned:

1 . You Have to Let Go of What You Cannot Control: I was 27 years old when we buried my father. I gave the eulogy at his funeral. I’ve found my twenties to be that weird in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Standing at my father’s grave, I felt like a child. I thought I would be in my 40’s or 50’s when I buried him. Not now. Not before I had my own children.  

I’ve had to learn to let go of that. Let go that he won’t be here for the big future moments and know that he is watching from heaven. Let go of what I can’t control. I couldn’t control the cancer. I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t solve the problem. Let go of it. Asking “‘why?” doesn’t answer it. Accept what it is and move forward with the grief. Accept that it will be with you for the foreseeable future. Focus on what you can do to take care of yourself and let go of what you cannot.

2. Lean on Those Who Show Up…Let Go of Those Who Don’t: People will shock you when you are going through something painful. You will find love in old friends and old classmates that you barely knew. Some people just show up because they know what you are feeling and know it is hell. Let those people support you, love you and guide you. There is nothing that can be done or said to heal this grief, but someone showing up and standing with you is what matters.

Even more surprising will be the people who disappear. The family who walks away because dealing with sadness is too much for them and if they stick around too long, they might get it on them. The best friends who you have stood by on their bad days who quit responding. Grief is bad. It’s awkward. It isn’t pretty and Insta-worthy. Grief is not the happy topic that comes up at a cocktail party. We all would love for it to be a thing that is swept under the rug. Unfortunately, it cannot be. You are already dealing with the grief of losing your person, don’t spend any more of it wasted on people who clearly do not care.  

3. Remember You Are Not Alone: Grief is experienced by 99 percent of people on this planet. If you live long enough, you will experience it. Unfortunately, some of us receive the unlucky luxury of experiencing it earlier than others. My father was 60 years old when he died. For those of us too young to bury parents who should’ve had a long life ahead of them, we must lean on each other. We are all in this world together and no one gets out alive. Let’s love and support one another while we are here. Let’s be open to it. The best thing I have done for myself in the last six weeks is letting people in.

4. Give Yourself Grace: You will have HARD days. Days where you can barely get out of bed, much less be productive at work. For someone who was always taught that “failure is not an option” and checking items off a to do list is important, days where I don’t do much are hard for me. I’ve learned that grief comes in waves and will take you under at times. Other days, you learn to tread water. Make sure you are taking care of yourself during this time. Get the sleep you need. Eat healthy when you can, but have Ben & Jerry’s when you need it. Do the hard exercises but go for a walk if it’s easier.

Do what is best for you and don’t listen to anyone else (except your therapist). I have found that listening to a playlist of my father’s favorites from Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Joni Mitchell helps me feel close to him. Take what they have given you and keep it near to you on the days you feel like you are drowning.

5. Take Your Experiences and Help Others:  As a child and young adult, I watched my father battle “a good cancer.” I am now committed to helping children who are going through similar experiences. To ensuring my charitable donations go to causes supporting cancer research, including research for the cancer that is considered “good.” Don’t keep your story to yourself. Share it. Use it as a catalyst to educate, help and love others. I have gone through this for a reason, and I am determined to use it for the good of others.

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