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What cancer takes from us and what we are left with instead

Next week Tuesday, January 16th, would be my mother's 71st birthday. Probably it would consist of gathering us all for dinner and some cake. Likely at my house, with her grandchildren more interested in the cake than anything else. It wouldn't be anything fancy, perhaps not even particularly memorable. Just one of many birthday gatherings much like the dozens we've had before. We'd snap the classic birthday shot, mom and grandkids all gathered around the cake smiling. Well most of them smiling, I'm sure someone would be pulling bunny ears or not looking at the camera. Celebration in the midst of the regular routine of work and school.


This picture will only exist in my imagination, however, because my mom died at age 68, three years ago. This will be the third time I'm living through her birthday without her, envisioning what could have been if not for the cancer. Each year has hit a bit differently, the first like a tidal wave of despair, still in disbelief that this could be possible. The second, a quieter sadness, one that smacked of the finality of death. This year, three years out, I'm struck by the changes that have happened in my life, the ones that she will not know. There is a lingering kind of sorrow to that, an awareness that life keeps moving, and her memory lives in my past now. I have heard others with this kind of loss talk about the five, then ten, then fifteen year marks, noting that they may be living completely different lives. Remarking on the bittersweet feelings they have as joy and sadness accompany each other.


Cancer takes from us the possibility of future birthday photos, the opportunity to make more memories, and to see how life's narratives unfold in relationship. In my life it has taken the opportunity to watch my children have relationships with their grandmother in their teens and young adulthood. It has taken my ability to ask my mom for her thoughts on raising teenagers or how she managed menopause symptoms. When I dwell on the things cancer has taken from me it can become overwhelming. The losses are compounded as the years move forward.


There is no easy answer here, no simple statement of good that wipes away the sadness of this loss. In fact, learning to live with it is more like embracing the bittersweet. What cancer has left me in this moment is exactly that, joy mixed with sadness. An experience of the world that has tremendous moments of joy, because life can be full of those! And in those moments I acknowledge that sadness that comes along. The reality of how loss shapes our lives. That there can be hope for the future and also grief. Both together.


I'm on a journey that has been impacted by loss, and that's how I talk about it in therapy as well. If you are in the midst of grappling with your loss feel free to reach out. Counseling can help.


Thanks for reading,

Dr Wolff

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Kara E. Wolff, PhD
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