It was just after Christmas 2003 when I got the news that my brother, at the age of 45 and eight years younger than I was, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had only months to live. He had a great marriage and three teenage sons. My brother and I were very close. Mom and Dad and my sister were devastated, and I was shocked. Our family was very tight knit, and this was the worst news possible. My mother was particularly affected and grasped on to the false belief that it could somehow be cured. Fortunately, I was able to spend a week with my brother about a month before he died and enjoy some intimate, private time with him. We did all the things we usually did, working on one of his cars and shopping for parts at Canadian Tire. It was a surreal experience-he looked quite healthy, yet we both knew everything we were doing was to be for the last time. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a series of losses that would amount to a “body blow” to my soul.
A month before my brother died in June, we got the news that my sister, at 49, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She was beautiful, intelligent and very happily married, with three teenaged children. Her death was torturous. Month by month, due to a combination of the cancer, the chemotherapy and radiation, her essence slipped away. At the end, she was rendered helpless. I will always remember preparing the eulogy for both my siblings, searching for the essence of their lives in a few words. I was in stunned disbelief at how this could happen in such a short time, but the losses were far from over.
The experience of my brother’s death and the knowledge of my sister’s illness devastated my mother, who became ill and also died-mercifully, before having to experience my sister’s final days. It was tragic to experience the loss of my brother and sister, since they were unexpectedly struck down in mid-life with young families, and quite a different experience from losing a parent, because due to age a parent’s death is expected.
During this time, my losses were compounded by a move from Victoria, where I had lived and practised law for 25 years, to Vancouver, where I had virtually no friends or social network at all. My father, devastated from the losses of his children and his wife of 57 years, required extensive care. Since he lived in Regina, this had to be done long-distance. Then, within a few months, having lost his will to live, he also died. Within a period of four years I lost my entire family of origin, changed cities and careers. I am single, so my overwhelming feeling was one of being marooned or orphaned in midlife, as well as having the expected feelings of grief and loss. All the people closest to me were gone.
Throughout most of my early life, I would have described myself as a macho “Lone Ranger” when it came to seeking help from others, but now I knew the value of support. I contacted a counsellor at the LAP and got some amazing and compassionate help as well a referral to a ten-week grief and- loss group at St. Paul’s hospital. Everyone in this group had recently lost parents, siblings or partners. The facilitators were excellent and guided us through the normal phases of losing someone close to you. The idea was to fully experience the loss in a healthy way, and to avoid falling over the cliff into a debilitating depression.
We also learned about what to expect in a normal process of grieving, such as seeing “phantoms” when you get a glimpse of someone who reminds you of the lost person, and what to do about pictures and objects that belong to the deceased. I also attended a support group, where I could talk about my experiences and deal with unresolved issues about my family and my feeling of being alone in the world. I also got counselling from people at the LAP and from outside therapists.
Because I sought help early and often throughout this whole ordeal, I experienced healthy sadness and feelings of loss, but it did not result in anything more serious-I was able to work and be productive through the whole period. I also was quickly able to see the blessings and gifts and joys of the time I had spent, and the love I had experienced, with my family, and not focus on their deaths. The support helped me to stay away from the temptation of indulging in being a victim or feeling sorry for myself These losses also deepened my faith and reminded me not to take life for granted and to continue living a rich, full life. And I changed my context about getting older, since my brother and sister never made it. Old age is a privilege denied to many.
If you are experiencing grief or loss, I highly recommend that you take advantage of the support and referrals available at the LAP.