Collective Trauma

I recently read an article about collective trauma in relation to how people who lived through Melbourne’s months-long lockdown have been affected: https://tinyurl.com/y4tglv6t

What strikes me is that “collective trauma” could well be a definition for what cancer patients, survivors and their families and loved ones experience. No one who hasn’t been to that same dark place can truly understand the damage done to the cancer patient’s equilibrium, sense of self and trust in their own bodies. People close to them, principally carers, are also strongly affected.

Many cancer patients struggle to overcome feelings of terror at the thought that they might die, or that they will never work again, or no one will love them anymore because they look different.  Those who survive often doesn’t understand why they can’t go back to being how and who they were before their diagnosis. Family, friends, colleagues and employers can sometimes become impatient with them for not simply getting on with their lives.

“IT IS A RECOGNISED FACT THAT HAVING CANCER CAN CAUSE PTSD”

Once you’ve had cancer, your life will never be the same again and there is a grieving process that needs to take place regarding the loss of your BC (before cancer) life.  Your hopes and dreams may have been dashed – perhaps you are now infertile, or you’ve lost your dream job or your plans for an exciting retirement have been squashed.  Or you could struggle to come to terms with changes in your physical appearance and feeling exhausted all the time. This might be because a body part has been amputated, life-saving surgery make have left disfiguring scars, you could suffer a permanent disability as a result of cancer treatments and your energy levels may never get back to what they were pre-cancer. 

Life Force, the Cancer Foundation that I work with, recognises the trauma that a cancer diagnosis can cause and runs weekly support groups where cancer patients and survivors can share with others who genuinely ‘get ‘ how they feel about their experience. There is something about the shared experience that can be incredibly healing. There is no quick fix and it sometimes takes many months, if not years, for people to eventually feel that they have come to terms with their new reality. But when they do, there is an enormous sense of relief, gratitude that they are still here to make a new, albeit different life and the ability to embrace the future.

For those whose illness is terminal, having somewhere to share everything they feel about that is absolutely vital, especially if their families refuse to discuss the possibility of death.

It is essential for your daily well-being to find people who are comfortable allowing you to be truly authentic when talking about how devastating chemo and/or radiotherapy is or was; how frightened you are that your cancer might return; how blindsided you are by people who simply disappeared from your life; or enraged that you got cancer in the first place when you’ve always lived a very healthy life but now you’re told that you’re not going to survive. To be able to express everything you’re feeling, without worrying that you might be upsetting those close to you or be told that you shouldn’t feel that way is empowering.  If we simply push the uncomfortable feelings down, they don’t go away and there is a very real risk of becoming stuck, which can hinder the recovery process and definitely impact on the quality of everyday life.

Life Force group facilitators have had their own brush with cancer, so can genuinely relate. If you would like to join our Zoom support groups (one for patients & survivors and a separate bereavement/carers group, please visit Life Force’s website: www.lifeforce.org.au or email me at jane@lifeforce.org.au.  

JANE GILLESPIE, Cancer Survivor, Counsellor and Support Group Facilitator Mob: 0412 643 751

Grieving the End of a Relationship

A few years ago I read a post by Zoe Hendrix, whose partner had walked away from their relationship three years after they fell in love on Married At First Sight.

Here is a quote from her post:

“Have hope, knowing that it’s not the end of the world if someone doesn’t love you anymore… it’s only the end of the world, if you don’t love YOU anymore.”

What a powerful statement! None of us should make another person responsible for our happiness. There will inevitably be times during our lives when someone disappoints, betrays or abandons us in some way, but by working on loving ourselves we can all be comforted by the knowledge that we will be able to heal and move forward.

I was devastated when my husband of almost 25 years ended our marriage and it took me many years to be able to trust someone else with my heart. That didn’t happen until I had done a lot of work to see what part I had played in the demise of our relationship. I discovered that I had given him total power over my happiness and came to realise that this was both immature and unfair. When I felt ready I did meet someone new and I went into that relationship knowing that no matter what happened in the future I would always have me.

So take heart if you are grieving the loss of a relationship and give yourself time to learn who you are and believe that you are enough on your own. It’s human nature to want someone beside us who we feel is our soul mate. Someone who has our back, is our best friend, and will be there for us no matter what. But that should be the icing on the cake and we all need to know that we have the cake already because we love ourselves enough to weather any storm.

(c) Jane Gillespie

https://www.janegillespie.com.au/counsellor.html

 

How do you talk to someone who has just been told they have cancer?

What should you do if you find out that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer?  Some people are really good at this but others feel at a loss to know what to say. Some even say things that are not helpful at all.

I can give you my point of view because I’ve had breast cancer that needed a total mastectomy and chemotherapy, a Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) that required surgery and radiotherapy and many BCCs that have had to be cut out.

As a facilitator of support groups for cancer patients for almost 20 years I’ve heard the same thing over and over again about how some responses from family and friends have felt truly horrible. Here are some things people said to me that I never found helpful. In fact they really upset me!

“Oh well, survival rates are really good today.”  This is irrelevant when someone is in shock, trying to come to terms with the news.

“I’m sure you/he/she will be all right.”  Actually you do NOT know this.

“Aren’t you lucky that you’ve got the best specialist ?”  Even if this is true, the newly diagnosed person will not be feeling lucky about anything just now. After all they’ve just been told they’ve got cancer and NO ONE would ever say this was lucky.

“The best thing you can do is be positive.”  While being positive (I prefer the word optimistic) can help with anxiety along the way there is no evidence that a positive attitude has any bearing on a cancer patient’s prognosis.

“Oh, my aunt/cousin/boss had that cancer and they’re fine now.”  This can feel very dismissive. There are many different grades and stages for every type of cancer.  You don’t know all the details of your friend’s cancer and they probably don’t either at this point.  They might like to hear about people who have survived once they’ve got over the initial shock, but probably not just now.

“This is a journey and you will get to the end of it.” Um, yeah – we will all get to the end of the journey, but you have absolutely no way of knowing how things will end for your friend.

THIS is the truth:

There are some people who are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they just disappear.  This can be fear of hurting their friend or fear of cancer itself.  (“If you can get it, I might too…”).  Many friendships have foundered because of people’s fear.

The ‘disappearing act’ is incredibly hurtful for someone who thought you were their friend and really needs your support. 

What I personally found most helpful was when people understood that I wasn’t expecting them to ‘fix it’ for me.  Some of the things empathetic people said to me that were truly helpful are:

“I don’t know what to say; I feel helpless.  Please tell me if there is anything I can do.”

“Oh, that’s horrible news.  I’m so sorry this has happened to you.”

“You’re looking pretty good today.  How do you actually feel though?”  It’s wonderful what can be done with make-up to present a prettier picture than the reality.  Simple recognition of this is really good.

And when I was undergoing treatment and felt revolting, the best thing anyone could say to me was, “You’re having a really tough time today, aren’t you?  I’m sorry – it just sucks.”

Your friend with cancer knows you can’t fix it for them. All they need is acknowledgment from you that they are going through a tough time and an offer to be there to support them in any way you can. 

Of course no one sets out to be hurtful, but it’s important to think about the impact your words might have on someone confronting a life-threatening disease. If you simply don’t have the words, sending a funny card with a loving message is sometimes enough.

No one is a mind reader, so ask them to be specific if there is something you can do for them.  If they seem to have a hard time thinking of anything, make up your own list of suggestions such as doing the washing and/or ironing for them, mowing the lawn, taking the dog for a walk, taking the kids out for the afternoon, going to the supermarket, cooking some meals or driving them to treatment and ask what would be helpful for them.  This will make it a lot easier for you to be supportive in a useful way and will help you with your feelings of helplessness.

© Jane Gillespie

Older single women at risk

Women over 60 are more likely to attempt and complete suicide compared to younger women. 

Many older women are widowed or divorced and quite often have no family.  To quote from the article above: “Social isolation is a risk factor for suicide, social connectedness is a protective factor. Very simply, you do not die if you are not alone and people do not normally suicide in the presence of others.”

I know of one group of five friends who bought a block of six units together.  They currently rent out the sixth unit with the idea that this one would eventually be available rent free for someone trained in aged care so the owners could continue to live in their own homes as they become frail, while knowing that support was within easy reach.

This is a brilliant idea but there are many older women who don’t own their own home and don’t have enough money to buy anything.  There needs to be more secure housing available for these women where they can form a community of people who will look out for each other.

Housing affordability is an essential part of making life bearable for anyone, as is having true neighbours willing to look out for each other.  

There are some public housing complexes for people of retirement age but not nearly enough of these.  One that I know of has a mix of single level and two-storey townhouses with their own courtyards and common garden areas as well as a community room complete with kitchen and toilet facilities.  This room can be used by residents to put on movie nights or have parties or other celebrations there.  More of this type of accommodation is essential for single women to live a connected life.

Of course, there should be similar housing for older men too as they can often be extremely isolated too.

(c) Jane Gillespie

 

Friendship

 

Sometimes it takes something awful happening to you to find out which friends know the true meaning of the word

Some people think that to be a true friend they have to cheer you up or try to solve your problem for you, that they have to ‘do’ something to fix you.  The reality is that often there isn’t anything anyone can do.  Here are some examples of events that no one can fix for you:

  • your husband/wife/sweetheart has told you they don’t love you anymore and has walked out
  • your child is addicted to drugs
  • your sibling/child/partner/parent has been convicted of a crime and been sent to jail
  • you have been declared bankrupt
  • someone very dear to you has died
  • your house has been repossessed
  • you’ve been fired from your ideal job

 

When things like this happen there is usually very little anyone can do to make it better.  What you need is a friend who will just be there for you, listen to you, commiserate with you and let you be as angry, sad, devastated as you need to be until you’re ready to re-engage with life again.

It can be uncomfortable knowing you can’t make things better for a dear friend but unless they ask for your advice, offering solutions is rarely the right thing to do.  Of course it’s okay to say, “I hate that I can’t make this better.  Is there anything I can do that might help?” But unless your friends says yes there is, it’s best to just let them ramble on for as long as it takes.

LEARN TO BE A HUMAN SPONGE

Often you just need to sit with them and not say anything at all, but it’s useful to make empathic noises such as mmmm or uh-huh or repeat back to them something they’ve said (“you’re devastated/angry/scared”), so they know you have really been listening to them.  This is actually the best thing you can do because once they know they have been heard, it’s easier to get to a place where they can start thinking about how they’re going to manage life from now on.

http://janegillespie.com.au/counsellor.html

 

WORDS OF WISDOM

Today I came across this old article written by Nina Lamparski in the Wentworth Courier, 21st March 2007

Counsellor Jane Gillespie’s book “Journey to Me” openly talks about her battle with cancer.

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Author Jane Gillespie had just finished her chemotherapy when she decided to run away. “I’d bottled up all my feelings about having cancer and once the treatment ended I suffered a breakdown,” she explained. “I just had to pack up and leave.”

The Canberra mother of three had been diagnosed with a malignant lump in her breast in 1994, a “harrowing experience” that would turn her “whole world upside-down” & push her to flee to Sydney.

In the autobiographical Journey to Me, to be published on 24th March 2007, Ms Gillespie recounts how the pressure to shield those close to her from the emotional trauma became impossible. “Cancer is not just a physical illness,” she said. “It literally eats you up from the inside. You feel like you can’t share it with your family and friends. You want to protect them and not burden them even more. Eventually I couldn’t stand this anymore.”

But her impromptu move interstate did not provide the relief Ms Gillespie had hoped for. “I thought I could leave the past behind and yet it followed me. Imagine my shock when I discovered I’d brought myself with me.”

In the end, “I believe it was joining a Life Force Cancer Foundation support group that saved my life”, Ms Gillespie said. The not-for-profit organisation, which has support groups in the Eastern Suburbs and Inner West, helps cancer survivors deal with the emotional aftermath of their illness. There is also a separate Inner West group for carers.

Ms Gillespie, who now works as a Life Force counsellor, said she hoped her book would fulfill a similar role.

“I really want people to understand that there’s life after cancer but also that it’s okay to be down and feel negative at times,” she said. “Being open about what’s going on inside of you is a vital part of the healing process.”

Jane Gillespie is one of Life Force Cancer Foundation’s Counsellors. Life Force is a non-profit organisation, providing emotional/psychosocial support for people dealing with the experience of cancer, through a range of support programs and therapies including group work and meditation, counselling special and retreats. Support groups are held weekly in Sydney’s metropolitan area.

More information about Jane or Life Force can be found at these websites;

www.janegillespie.com.au                         www.lifeforce.org.au

 

CAN YOU GROW FROM GRIEF?

The world seems to be filled with pain these days. Everywhere we look there is terror, devastation and loss. In the United States it seems as though the police forces in many States are at war with people of colour, just because they aren’t white and they in turn are reacting with violence.

Elsewhere there are madmen (and women) blowing innocent people up or ramming a heavy vehicle into a crowd of revellers, gunmen opening fire on total strangers or rampaging through a group with a knife. We read newspapers, watch or listen to the news or just talk to our friends, and it’s in our faces – impossible to escape.

Provided we are feeling reasonably okay ourselves, the pain all this causes might be possible to view from a distance. We know it’s there, but if it doesn’t impact personally on us or those we love, we can mostly put it aside and be grateful that we’re safe. However, everything seems to be especially heightened now, with the spectre of COVID-19 hanging over us.

However, grief is a type of pain that no one can avoid forever, no matter how blessed our lives might be. Sooner or later, someone who is supremely important to us will die and leave us forever.

When someone very dear to us dies, the pain we experience is grief. We can’t avoid it; we can’t hide from it or run away from it, although some try. Even though we might feel like we’re drowning, ultimately we have to learn to let the waves knock us over before they dump us back on dry land.

When the worst of the pain subsides, we can be left wondering what just hit us, struggling to take a full breath. Life may seem like an endless twilight. No moon, no stars, very little light, dull and grey and nothing to make us believe that the sun will rise again.

Eventually the awful feeling of emptiness, as though there’s a hole in our very essence, does gradually lessen and it’s as though the stars do come out then the moon shines through, followed by a new day with the sun shining in the sky.

We no longer feel dreadful all day every day and there might even be some days when we forget about our grief completely. We will have more happy memories than sad thoughts about our loss and we begin to re-engage with life.

One thing it’s really important to know is that we will never be the same again. We’ve been through an extreme experience, the loss of something very precious that can never be found again in exactly the same way. We are different now and always will be but we’ve been in the crucible; we’ve survived the fire; we have come out the other side. Maybe we’re a bit wonky, with invisible and possibly some visible signs of the struggle we’ve been through, like a broken vase that’s been not very expertly mended.

Some of the cracks will always be there, especially at certain times that bring the sadness rushing back: anniversaries, birthdays, family holidays, etc. But hopefully we will also find that we have greater strength, clarity and resilience learned through the knowledge that we have survived something that in the beginning we thought might break us forever.

We will always feel sad that we can no longer do certain things with the person we’ve lost, but will always have the memories of the wonderful times we had during our shared experiences.

There is no ‘right’ length of time for people to grieve.  But for anyone who is still locked into grief, I suggest you seek help.

Talk to a grief counsellor and/or join a support group.

https://www.janegillespie.com.au/counsellor.html

WE NEED TO TELL OUR STORIES UNTIL WE DON’T

Have you ever noticed how when something unexpected happens to people, especially if it’s a shock or traumatic in any way, they tell everyone they see afterwards all about it? They also often tell the story again and again to the same people. It can be hard to avoid an invisible roll-of-the-eyes and a silent commentary along the line of, “here we go again”.

However, try to put yourself in their place and imagine that you have, for example, a minor car accident on your way to work. Your car isn’t badly damaged and you can eventually be on your way, albeit now running late for work. The first thing you are likely to do when you arrive is to announce the accident to everyone. Will that be the end of it? I don’t think so. Maybe your neck will start to hurt and you get a splitting headache because you’ve suffered a whiplash injury. You will undoubtedly tell people about this and it will probably necessitate you telling the whole story of the accident over again. You may find that you continue to tell the story of this incident for days or even weeks afterwards.  This is how you process what has happened to you and helps you to get over the shock you have suffered.

A few years ago someone I know ruined Christmas for everyone else. This person has a mental illness and was under a lot of stress but their behaviour was incredibly abusive and had everyone walking on eggshells for fear of setting off another torrent of rage. The end result has been a fracturing of several family relationships. The whole event left everyone feeling battered and shattered. Even now, some of us feel as though our hearts have been lacerated because we’ve had to distance ourselves from this person.

For months afterwards I personally kept telling friends who weren’t there about how it had felt; the shock, disbelief, anger and fear caused by the perpetrator of the abuse.  Eventually we were all able to move on and accept that it was that person’s mental instability that caused their behaviour . However, I am certain that I was only able to do this because I talked about it so many times with close friends, other family members and a therapist. There was something about letting all those awful feelings out that allowed me to let them go, simply because I had acknowledged them and had them validated by people who have listened to me.

So the next time you feel impatient hearing someone else’s story for the second or fifth or tenth time, try to be present with them, make sympathetic noises and don’t offer advice on what they ‘should’ be doing. When they’re ready, they will stop telling their story because they will no longer need to.

© Jane Gillespie 2017

http://janegillespie.com.au/counsellor.html

 

 

CAN COUNSELLING HELP CANCER PATIENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES?

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is a traumatic experience. One minute you’re ‘normal’ and the next your entire life has been turned upside down.

despairIt can be hard, even impossible, to talk to family members or friends about the roller-coaster of emotions that you have been commandeered into riding. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they and their family can feel shocked, disbelieving, frightened, without direction or simply numb. Talking things through in confidence with someone who understands the emotional challenges of cancer can be extremely helpful.

Speaking individually to an experienced cancer counsellor can ease the sense of isolation you may feel and help you to find ways of facing the challenges ahead. This also applies to family members, friends and colleagues. By talking privately to a counsellor they can explore their anxiety, grief and any other emotions openly and honestly without needing to shield the person who is ill.

Why cancer counselling?

Research shows that counselling can be significantly useful in helping individuals and families face and meet the many challenges that a cancer diagnosis brings with it. This has been demonstrated to improve their quality of life.

During counselling, patients and families can learn how to cope more easily with their emotional issues. This helps them to communicate their needs better when speaking to Health professionals.

Counselling helps in easing any tension in relationships with family and friends. Optimistic but realistic outlooks replace the burden of positive expectations. Just saying “I’m being positive” doesn’t actually mean much, although being optimistic can always help you to enjoy life more in the here and now. However, if fears are present (and why wouldn’t they be?), then it is healthy to talk about these and get them out into the light of day.

How might you feel?

Some responses that people may feel when they are told they have cancer:

  • Shock: “What?? No!”
  • Denial / Disbelief: “It’s a mistake, those aren’t MY test results.”
  • Withdrawal: “I can’t/don’t want to talk to anyone.”
  • Feeling isolated: “Nobody understands.”
  • Anger: (“*#@^!!!”)
  • Loss: “But I’ve so much more I want to do with my life.”
  • Body image issues: “Will I look like a freak?”
  • Fears associated with sexuality and intimacy: “No one will every desire me now.”
  • Fear and uncertainty: “What’s going to happen to me?”

Anything you feel is valid and deserves to be acknowledged, not only by those around you, but also by you, yourself.

Seeking individual counselling or becoming part of a support group may be where you can find this acknowledgment.

After a cancer diagnosis, you might feel as though you have no control over what is happening to you and this can be very frightening. Uncertainty is often one of the most difficult things to deal with. You might feel as though cancer and its treatment have taken total control of your life and this can lead to feelings of powerlessness.

Counselling allows you to take back some control over your life and provides you with some semblance of security again. It can help you to enjoy your life despite the illness.

While it can be terrifying to think about it, it is natural to want to know what is likely to happen to you, so that you can plan for your future.

Sorting out your affairs so that everything is in order can be very confronting but it can also be helpful. Even though it’s likely to be painful for you and your family to talk about dying, it can also provide an opportunity to talk about what is important to you all and develop deeper levels of intimacy with each other. Regardless of how long the cancer patient lives, everyone benefits by being open and honest about what they value in their relationships.

Many cancer patients feel as if they have lost control of their lives. Talking to a counsellor or others going through a similar experience can help you to regain a level of control over how you cope.

To find out about support groups go to http://www.lifeforce.org.au

© Jane Gillespie

 

Excellent resource for people with cancer

So often the emotional impact of being diagnosed with cancer is overlooked.  I’ve talked about this before but just found this excellent book produced by the National Cancer Institute in the United States: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/takingtime/takingtime.pdf.

Just about everything written in this resonated with me.  I think this publication, or something very similar written by local cancer organisations, should be made available for everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Highly recommended.

Jane Gillespie – google.com/+JANEGILLESPIEHolisticCounsellor