Grief- You’re Back Again?

Aug 21, 2020 | Patient Stories, Awareness, Health & Wellness

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Written by Kristen Palma, TargetCancer Foundation President.

Here is what I have learned about grief after having to cope with it for eleven years.  It is like that old t-shirt in the back of your drawer that pops up every year when you are doing your spring cleaning. You forgot it was there but it shows up each season and for some reason you decide to keep it- never ready to let it go. But you never wear it either.

Every year, the week leading up to August 22, the anniversary of my husband’s death, takes me by surprise. It knocks me off balance from my day to day life as a single woman and mother who lost the man she loved. And every year I wonder why. The calendar never changes and I have eleven years of practice dealing with this week, yet I am always taken off guard by the emotions that bubble to the surface in these days.

Despite the horrors that I witnessed in the August days leading to my 39-year-old husband Paul’s death from cancer in 2009, I still love the summer. I am lucky enough to be able to spend it in a little cottage by the ocean on Martha’s Vineyard down the road from where we stayed together. Paul and I were married on the Vineyard and loved being here, first as a couple and then with our son Luca after he was born in 2006. Paul and I always dreamed about owning a home here and a year after he died, I found the perfect place. Being here has brought me and my son immense healing, extended time with family, a community of friends, nourishing food from our garden, and the ocean that settles and calms me no matter what is swirling around. As soon as we could leave the city after the pandemic hit, Luca and I arrived and immediately felt grounded in a little bubble of beauty and normalcy. We listen to the waves, work in our garden, chase away the deer and rabbits from our newly planted flowers and plants, and let the humidity curl our hair. It is where we feel the most free and happy.

When I am here I do not dwell in those summer days of illness, terror, and loss. And yet I woke up this morning, six days before the looming anniversary, and I was as Luca called me, grumpy. I felt exhausted even though I had slept late. The day before I had snapped at an older woman who had marched into a farmstand where I was shopping alone, proclaiming to me “Oh, sorry, I forgot my mask!” It is possible and maybe probable that I would have yelled at her for this on any other day. But when I woke up feeling this way today, it all started to add up.

I felt exhausted, short tempered, anxious, overly emotional, and… grumpy. It was only 1pm and all of these emotions had reared their heads. Why was I starting to cry doing the dishes or yelling at Luca for not doing them? Why were small, ordinary decisions fraying my nerves?  I was where I loved to be, watching and listening to the waves from my couch on a quiet, rainy day but my heart felt empty.

After eleven years of practice, this is what I have learned and now accept: the difficult memories and the grief live inside me. They have become united with the cells of my body, living alongside all of the others, making me who I am. I don’t need them very often and they normally just coexist. But once a year or so, they remind me that they are a part of me, too.

Over the years, I have added so many other experiences and now the happy and healthy moments with Paul live so much louder. Mercifully, these memories have multiplied and come to me every day to make me smile and to share with Luca. But the others remain, stuffed back somewhere like that old t-shirt. I can’t get rid of them, but I do not need to wrap myself up in them. I can accept them and let them remind me that I have overcome and survived something that most will never have to. I can decide that they are not something to fight against. The gift of the experience of doing this year after year is knowing that I have reached a place where I don’t feel them or wear them every day even though they are an inseparable part of who I am.

Each year, I notice that by the time August 22 arrives, there is an enormous sense of relief. The actual anniversary feels strangely lighter. It is over for now. I have existed another year without Paul, which is the harder reality to accept. But I have existed. I have lived, loved, experienced joy and challenges, alongside, not in spite of, the grief- just like that old t-shirt now put away for another year.