Grieving the Loss of Normal

by Jane Moses, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, from Billings, MT

Reprinted with permission of Cancer Family Network of Montana

A cancer diagnosis brings a world of changes we don’t want and didn’t ask for. One of them is losing a sense of normality, of what life always was, of what we could always count on.

What do we mean by "normal"?

Although it is defined differently by everyone, normal is what we never question. It is the set of assumptions we use to live our days, things we take for granted. For example —

  • When/how we wake up, and how we feel
  • What we eat and drink
  • How we plan our day — our work, families, volunteer job
  • Who we interact with, what we talk about

Things like these make up our normal days. They make it possible to predict what will happen — whether we will spend the day reviewing cases, or teaching children, or mending fence or running errands. We have all had our normal days disrupted for a time, by vacations, or out-of-town visitors, or changes at work. But these disruptions are temporary, and normal life usually returns in a way that feels reassuring.

With a cancer diagnosis, normal can be permanently disrupted. Suddenly, many of the things that made our lives stable and predictable are turned upside down. The regular routines are gone, and in their place are new problems, thoughts, feelings and fears. As treatment progresses, some people feel they have lost friends, although this is rarely true. "My friends shouldn’t have to go through my illness with me. I don’t want to bother anyone with this — it’s too hard." This is just one of the reasons a cancer diagnosis can be so disruptive. We feel as though we lose the ability to manage our lives and our relationships with the people we care about. This is especially hard for people who like feeling in control — and that’s most of us.

Grieving is normal, necessary

As humans, we’re pretty good at denial, especially when what we’re avoiding is painful or unpleasant. For some people, it works well. But denying a painful reality — like losing life as we know it in the face of a cancer diagnosis — prolongs suffering for many people. Accepting and grieving a loss can be painful in itself, but it can also clear the emotional decks for the hard work of getting on with life.

Grieving is not a linear process. You can’t start at the beginning, follow the steps until you come to the end, and then stop. Grieving is not tidy. And we all do it differently. One day you may feel pretty much OK, like you’ll be able to manage, and the next day you’re knocked flat. One woman said, "I was fine for a while, really — taking care of the house, working, talking with friends . . . It was good. Then my eight-year-old son started talking about playing football when he gets to high school, and it hit me. What if I’m not here? I can’t even look forward to my son’s high school days. And then I really started seeing how nothing’s the same."

Allowing yourself to go through this kind of pain, and not side step it, is exhausting and important work. Feel what you feel, when you’re ready to feel it. There isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve.

Loss of the life you planned

While it isn’t true that life before cancer was carefree, it was possible to make plans and assume you’d be around to take part in them. You may have felt you could look forward to a long and healthy life, the way many in your family have before you. If you have children, you could assume you’d be around to watch them grow up, to watch their lives unfold. If you are young, you may have to grapple with the possible loss of plans you had for the future — continuing a job, or college, or vocational training, or traveling with friends. Not being able to predict what will happen, feeling like there’s no point in making plans, can lead to hopelessness and despair. It can help to stay focused on today and tomorrow, and draw your thoughts away from the distant future.

"New normal"

For a time, a new sense of normal can settle in. It may include planning life around treatment, which is especially hard for families in rural areas who have to travel long distances for appointments and treatments, often leaving important farm and ranch work undone. A "new normal" might also include planning around the feelings that go with treatment — fatigue and nausea, for example — and knowing that on some days you will simply have to stay home and not get much accomplished. It may include accepting help with dinners, or housework, or with seasonal chores on the ranch or farm. Gradually, some people begin to think of life Before Cancer and After Cancer.