Monthly Archives: September 2010

Grieving the loss of a breast

After I had my mastectomy the breast cancer service did their best to match me with a volunteer in their peer support service but unfortunately the closest they could come up with was a woman who was 15 years younger than I when she was diagnosed, happily married and who had radiotherapy, not chemo like me.  About the only thing that we had in common was that we’d both had a mastectomy.

She told me, of course it didn’t worry her that she’d lost a breast; her husband loved her anyway.  Five years before my diagnosis my husband had walked out leaving me with our youngest child to raise.   All I could think was that if a man left me when I was whole, what chance did I have of anyone else wanting me now I was mutilated?

The volunteer said that her teenage children kept her spirits up by including her in all their activities and that her parents had been a tower of strength, stepping in when her husband needed to go to work. Her sisters took her to the hospital and minded the children when her husband took her away for a week to a spa to celebrate the end of her treatment.  My son lived in another city, my older daughter had a toddler to look after, my younger girl was born with a disability, my widowed mother was quite frail and my only sibling lived in New Zealand.

Five years down the track the woman I spoke to never thought about the fact that she’d had breast cancer, and life was ‘wonderful’.  I felt guilty because I didn’t want to hear about how marvellous her life was when mine was bloody horrible.

I know she was trying to give me hope but at the time I felt as though no one wanted to hear how devastated I was; that my fears were foolish.

So I just got on with things, putting on a brave face.  I told everyone that it was ‘only a breast’ after all. The important thing was that I was alive… wasn’t it?  When I looked back on that horrendous year I could see that while I might have been walking around, I certainly wasn’t ‘alive’.

The other women in the breast cancer support group I attended were unrelentingly upbeat.  The implication was that if you weren’t positive all the time you either wouldn’t get through it or the cancer would come back.  It seemed no one wanted to hear how I truly felt.

At the end of my treatment I had a breakdown.  I left town, sending my daughter to live with her father.  It was a year before I was able to work again.  My new oncologist referred me to the most wonderful support group.  I was encouraged to express all the feelings I had about having breast cancer and how frightened I was that every ache and pain must be bone cancer and every headache a brain tumour.  Their loving acceptance of exactly where I was at was the best possible medicine for me at that time.

It wasn’t until after reconstructive surgery that I realised that I’d never grieved the loss of my breast.  I chose to have an operation where my new breast was made using tissue from my tummy – major surgery.

After the operation, I was felled by the most intense anger.  I’d been so desperate to have the surgery that I didn’t really let myself think about how huge it was and how it could all have gone wrong.  But now that it was over, I was consumed with rage about the fact that if I hadn’t had this **** of a disease and lost my breast I wouldn’t have had to put myself through three separate donations of my own blood in the weeks before the operation, ten hours of anaesthetic and micro-surgery, followed by the torture of being forced to lie completely still in the one position for 12 hours after I woke up.

Because I was studying counselling at the time I realised that this anger was actually grief at the loss of my breast.  A classmate came to visit me and let me get all the tears, anger, hurt and pain off my chest – no pun intended!

My reconstructed breast is wonderful and despite the emotional agony I went through afterwards, I have never regretted having the surgery.  I’m just sorry that I didn’t know how to grieve losing my original breast before I made the decision to have the surgery.

Today, I can believe that the volunteer was telling me the truth about her husband because I have now had a wonderful relationship with a beautiful man who wasn’t at all fazed by my battle scars.

Grief and Different Kinds of Loss

Bereavement is the state of lossGrief is what we feel in reaction to a loss.

Different kinds of loss

Bereavement can be about far more than the death of a loved person in your life. Although by no means a complete list, here are some other events that can trigger loss:

  • moving house
  • being fired / made redundant
  • retirement
  • separation / divorce
  • any event that takes away your sense of safety or order
  • the death of a pet
  • being robbed
  • serious or life-threatening illness
  • miscarriage / infertility / abortion / birth of a disabled child
  • amputation
  • a shattered dream

It hurts to lose someone or something you love or is important to your day-to-day happiness and stability.

Different feelings

As well as being sad, you might feel many other confronting emotions that surprise you. It is important to know that anything you feel when you have suffered a loss is perfectly normal and to allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, because grief is a multi-faceted response to loss.You might experience:

  • anxiety
  • anger or even rage
  • disbelief
  • emotional numbness
  • an inability to perform routine tasks
  • a sense of separation from others
  • sadness
  • despair
  • loneliness

All these feelings are part of the healing process.

Some people feel as though they will never recover from the sadness.   As well as the natural sadness felt after experiencing a big loss, there are also psychological, physical, social and philosophical elements. Sometimes people behave in ways that are unusual for them.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, it’s only natural to grieve their absence in your life. Responses to any kind of loss will be different for every individual and will be influenced by each person’s personality, their upbringing, family support (or lack of), cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs.

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

Take care of yourself

It is very important when you are grieving that you are gentle with yourself. Here are some suggestions on how to look after yourself.

Accept your feelings

Everything you feel is valid after losing someone or something you cared deeply about. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Accepting and acknowledging you are going through a stressful experience may help you to manage your reactions. Many people wrongly think the intensity of their feelings means they are going mad or ‘losing it’.

Allow yourself to cry

It’s okay to cry if you feel like it. You don’t have to ‘get over it’ or finish grieving according to anyone else’s timetable. Grief is an extremely personal experience and it takes as long as it takes. If the thought of crying in front of people makes you feel uncomfortable you might want to make a plan so you can leave and go to a safer place if you feel overwhelmed.

Take time out

When someone dies, friends and relatives will have deep feelings of grief as well and the way they express or manage these feelings may be different to yours. You might think some people’s reactions to things are exaggerated. Some people might be upset by things that normally wouldn’t affect them. If you find it difficult coping with other people’s reactions take some time out if at all possible, e.g. go for a walk, listen to some favourite music, visit friends, see a movie, go to the gym, take a warm bath. Just remember, everyone grieves in their own unique way and no one way is better than another.

It’s okay to smile

After someone dies, it’s healthy to talk about the memories and good times you’ve had with that person. You will have happy memories of times spent together and it’s okay to enjoy those memories and have a laugh about the fun you have shared. This isn’t a sign that you miss the person any less.

Saying goodbye is important

When someone dies, part of the grieving process is letting go of that person. Saying goodbye helps you to do this. You can do this in a variety of ways, e.g. you could attend the funeral; hold your own private memorial service; write them a letter. It’s important to say goodbye in your own way and in your own time. There’s no right or wrong way for this to happen.

Don’t bottle up your feelings

Keeping things to yourself can cause tension to build up inside you. Find a way that works for you to express how you’re feeling. You could to talk to someone, write in a journal, draw, paint, use a punching ball, hit your bed with a tennis racquet or scream into some pillows. Remember, grief is not just about losing a person you loved; it can be caused by the loss of anything that was important and meaningful for you.

Have a massage

If you enjoy massage, this can be a good way to help you release some of that tension that can build up in your muscles.

Talk to someone

Talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling may be helpful. This could be a family member, friend, your minister/priest or a counsellor. Some people find it helpful to share their experiences in a group setting with others who have had similar experiences. Contact your local church, community centre, GP, Life Line (131114) or National Association for Loss and Grief ( to find out about support groups in your area.

Be aware that there will always be ‘grief triggers’ that can bring up feelings you thought you had moved through. Events such as anniversaries, birthdays, a new baby’s arrival in the family or even holidays you used to share with a lost loved one can deliver an emotional jolt for many years to come. Regardless of what event triggers feelings of loss and grief for you, be gentle with yourself and always seek help if you need it.

Your grief is always personal and it’s important not to allow others to trivialise it. Just because an event that feels like a bereavement to you is not viewed the same way by other people does not make your loss any less valid. Allow yourself to go through the process and you will eventually come out the other side. Bottling things up and denying feelings that already exist, does not make them go away. On the contrary, you can get stuck in them and this will impact on your ability to eventually move forward and live your life fully.

© Jane Gillespie