Monthly Archives: July 2010


Have you ever noticed how when asked how you’re feeling, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you’re depressed?  The usual response is, ‘who isn’t!’

But what happens if you tell them that you’re feeling sad?  People are really uncomfortable with that response.  I think it’s because they think they have to do something to make you feel better, whereas being ‘depressed’ is such a ubiquitous term these days that it has very little meaning. It’s not seen as a feeling; it’s like saying you’re ‘hot’ or ‘tired’ or ‘hungry’, which are all physical.  I definitely don’t want to trivialise true depression, but that is a medical condition; sadness is a human condition that we will all experience at certain times in our lives.

Someone once told me about a friend whose husband had died and six weeks later he couldn’t understand why she was still a mess.  He thought it was time she went back to work and ‘got her mind off things’.  This friend had been very happily married for 30 years, but in his view it was time she moved on!

Sadness or grief is what we feel in response to a loss in our lives. When we think about a loss most of us think of this in relation to the death of someone we loved, although there are many other different events that can trigger feelings of grief.  I’ll write more on that another time.

As a society we don’t really know how to handle loss.  Work places grant three days’ bereavement leave to allow people to make funeral arrangements and then they’re expected to get back to work, almost as if nothing has happened.

It hurts to lose someone you love and some people might feel as if they’ll never recover from the loss.   They worry that the intensity of their feelings means they’re going mad or ‘losing it’.  Grief is an extremely personal experience and whatever you feel is normal.  It’s important also to remember that there’s no definite period of time that works for everyone to move through grief.  It takes as long as it takes.

There will always be triggers that can bring up feelings of grief you thought you’d moved through.  Events such as anniversaries, birthdays or even an outwardly happy event such as a new baby’s arrival in the family can deliver an emotional jolt for many years to come.  Regardless of what event triggers feelings of sadness for you, be gentle with yourself.

With a good support network of empathic family and friends, most people are able to work through grief on their own.  However, reaching out for extra support from professionals, support groups or educational classes can help promote the healing process.

Cancer survivorship

As a cancer survivor it was a huge shock to find that once treatment was finished my life didn’t just go back to normal.  I had no idea what normal was anymore and it didn’t help that everyone (including me) expected me to go back to being the person I was before my diagnosis.  I ended up having a breakdown because all the feelings that I’d pushed down finally burst through the dam wall I’d built once I no longer had the security of knowing ‘something was being done’ about my cancer.  I had also resigned from my job after I’d finished chemo so I had nothing else to focus on.

While I was undergoing treatment I didn’t want to worry my family by telling them how scared, angry, despairing, ripped off and generally devastated I was feeling.  I thought they would be so upset that I’d have to worry about them as well as myself!

I moved to a different city and my new oncologist recommended that I attend a support group.  I’d tried this in my home town but everyone there was so damned upbeat and ‘positive’ all the time that I thought there clearly must be something wrong with me.  The message I got was that I had to be brave and cheerful and positive and just get on with things – the implication being that if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t get better.

However, the support group that my oncologist referred me to was run by a counsellor who’d had her own cancer experience and we were encouraged to express everything that we were feeling.  I cried at every weekly meeting for six months and nobody ever told me to get over it, pull my socks up, move on, cheer up.  Nobody tried to fix it or tell me what to do.

I learned that I was grieving the loss of my pre-cancer life and often an event that causes grief in the present will bring up unresolved grief from a person’s past.  So all the tears I shed helped me to bookcoverheal a lot of stuff going back years and years.  Being allowed to be a mess was the best possible medicine for me at that time.  My fellow group members supported me to eventually find a new normal for myself.

If only more people had access to this kind of support; a place where they don’t feel they have to edit what they say and where everyone else there in the room understands.  With the best will in the world, those who have not been there can’t understand, and that’s why I found it so helpful to be able to talk freely knowing that I didn’t have to justify myself.

A lot of people seem to think that talking about death hastens it.  When someone is terminally ill, talking about dying doesn’t make it happen any faster.  I believe that talking openly and honestly about our fears around death well before we are actually facing it can create depths of intimacy that enriches all our lives.

I wrote a book about my time during and after cancer and this was really helpful for me.  It helped me to put down on paper just what the whole experience had been like and with some distance from it I was able to let go a lot of the angst that I’d suffered.

These days I work as a counselling facilitator with the Life Force Cancer Foundation,  the organisation that I truly believe saved my life because if I hadn’t had the safety of my support group to experience all the grief and loss I felt at having to face my mortality decades before it might have felt normal, I think I would have pointed the bone at myself.   I’m now 22 years down the track and cancer-free.