Together with Sharon Bray – teacher and author of two books on writing and health – CKN welcomes you to our new Writing Series where Sharon helps readers tap into the healing power of writing during difficult times. As Sharon puts it, “Your stories matter. You are your stories. Our stories shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. It’s through story that we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our words can touch others’ hearts.” Follow along with this bi-monthly series with Sharon and please send us your stories….they matter to us.
No. I don’t want to hear about your uncle
and how he lived three years
after being diagnosed.
And I don’t want to hear
how many times your cousin threw up
when she had chemo…
And I don’t want your sounds of pity
simpering about my situation.
Pity separates us and
with one out of three getting cancer now,
pity won’t keep you safe.
(“The Cancer Patient Talks Back,” by Molly Redmond, In: The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)
Aren’t we better yet? It’s impossible to escape the ongoing tragedies that have become part of the daily diet of the nightly news. Shootings, the increasing violence crisis at Standing Rock, the ongoing Syrian refugee crises, and the atmosphere of shock and worry in the wake of a divisive and troubling U.S. election. Even though I turn off the television to avoid the nightly barrage of negative reports, the tragedies of violence, loss and disaster rarely fade completely from my consciousness. But as unwanted flyers fill my mailbox with Black Friday shopping deals, I am always a little stunned by our ability to forget or push aside the suffering and crises of those less fortunate in the world.
Five years ago, in the first few days following the massive earthquakes in north-east Japan which unleashed a devastating tsunami, the nightly newscasts were riveted on the unfolding Japanese tragedy. Newspaper headlines, radio and television news, and a multitude of possibilities for disaster relief consumed our attention for a few days afterward, but all too soon we were back to reports of the usual partisan wrangling, the Arab spring, air strikes in Libya, and Osama Bin Laden’s death. The devastation experienced by the Japanese receded from prominence, despite the extent of the tragedy. Even years later, many have not recovered from the disaster.
At the time of the tsunami I wrote my Japanese friends and a few weeks later, I contacted them again, simply to let them know they were still very much in my thoughts. “You’ve touched my heart,” one friend wrote. “It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.”
“It is so reassuring to know we have not been forgotten.” Those words linger in my mind even now as I think of all the other natural and man-made disasters, the unexpected tragedies and life threatening illnesses that have turned people’s lives upside down. The parallels are unmistakable. In the first weeks after someone experiences a personal tragedy—loss of a job, home or loved one, the diagnosis of a crippling or life threatening illness, people often respond with an immediate outpouring of concern and help. That’s important, because concern and kindness are our lifelines, helping us cope in the first unsettling weeks. But recovery from any unexpected tragedy, loss or illness takes more than a few weeks–much longer, it seems, than people around us expect. And that’s when we often need the support of others the most.
“Aren’t you better yet?” Our friends and family members may not always understand what it is to recover from life’s difficult events. Some years ago, in the months after my first husband’s death by drowning, I called my younger sister late one night, caught up in the crush of grief and loneliness and separated from my family by thousands of miles. I quickly regretted the call as she obviously felt I should be “better” than I was, launching into a “pep talk,” but her words were peppered with what felt like mild recrimination: “you should… you should…you should…” I regretted calling her. What I needed was understanding, a chance to feel heard, a sense of connection. When I hung up a few minutes later, my sorrow and grief spilled over into tears. Even though she meant well, I felt guilty. I began questioning myself: “Was something wrong with me? Shouldn’t I be feeling better? Be back to “normal?”
Like it or not, grief and recovery don’t operate on a pre-determined timetable, yet we often feel pressure to force fit our emotions into some erroneous notion about the amount of time we “should” feel bad. The night I called my sister, I was seeking understanding, the reassurance I and my daughters had not been forgotten in the weeks after the drowning. Others lives had moved on it seemed, while ours was a long and emotional roller coaster adjustment to the death of a husband and father.
Understanding and support came from unexpected places. I was living in rural Nova Scotia at the time, where many villages shared the history of men lost in fishing boats to the Atlantic’s turbulent waters. There, in a place where I lived so far from family, the people, many I barely knew, brought food and friendship, the quiet ability to listen and understand, offers to care for my daughters if I needed a break, helping me remember I was not alone in my grief. I discovered friendship and understanding from those who knew the sorrow of loss and suffering, who understood that healing needed time and the support of others. I’ve never forgotten their kindness. I often think of the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye when I remember that period in my life. “Before you know what kindness really is,” she tells us, “you must lose things…”
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
(From “Kindness”, in The Words Under The Words ©1994)
Kindness, understanding, empathy. These are qualities that are quickly expressed among the members of the therapeutic writing groups I lead for cancer patients and survivors. As we write together in an environment of safety and support, the shared experience of cancer creates a strong bond between the members. They often express the difficulties they experience in dealing with loved ones and friends—those who mean well but don’t fully understand what they are going through. Yet in the writing group, there is no need to explain what they are feeling as they undergo every up and down of the cancer experience. The sense of community and friendship is, perhaps, one of the most healing outcomes of the writing group. For example, as the fall writing series concluded a month ago at one cancer center, several of the metastatic cancer patients organized themselves into an ongoing group, humorously naming the group “Mets in the City.” They meet often over coffee and tea, supporting one another, sharing friendship and understanding, and never asking, “Aren’t you better yet?”
Our friends and family want us to feel better—to be well. Cancer ignites fear in those around us, and their responses may be experienced as impatience or a lack of concern. But it’s difficult to watch a loved one suffer, and it makes others feel helpless. Sometimes that concern or fear is masked, and instead, they ask, “Aren’t you feeling any better yet?” or offer advice, “You should try…” Although they mean well, the impact on you is a negative one, and you may feel more isolated or guilty for expressing your feelings. That’s why a support group, whether a therapeutic one for cancer survivors, an expressive writing or art group, or just a group that shares activities together—like bowling, making crafts, or meeting, like the “Mets in the City” for lunch or coffee on a regular basis can be sources for the support and friendship so important in the healing process.
Yes, I will take hugs, help,
plus anger, strength and love.
But the only person I want to hear about
is your Grandma Ruth,
who was diagnosed at fifty
and died at ninety,
hold your tongue.
(From: “The Cancer Patients Talks Back,” by Molly Redmond)
- Have you had someone ask you “Aren’t you better yet?” as you’ve struggled to make sense out of your illness or loss? What was the occasion? How did you feel? How did you respond? What happened?
- Have there been times that you’ve felt forgotten or felt you’ve lost a friend during the cancer journey? Write about the discoveries or disappointments in the nature of friendship in the wake of your illness, treatment or loss.
- Write about discovering kindness, even new friendships, in unexpected places.
- Write about a group activity that has provided the kind of support that helps you stay positive or given you strength during the cancer experience. What about the group is helpful to you?
Let us hear from you! CKN will select and publish your responses to the suggested writing prompts from Sharon. Send them to Karen Irwin. 500 word limit.
Sharon Bray, Ed.D., is the author of two books on writing and health: A Healing Journey: Writing Together through Breast Cancer and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer. Her blog site, www.writingthroughcancer.com, features weekly reflective essays and writing prompts for anyone writing out of illness, pain or life struggle. She leads a number of expressive writing workshops for cancer survivors and teaches creative nonfiction and transformational writing for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto.