How Survivors Can Cope With Grief After Cancer

May 7, 2019
Wendy G. Lichtenthal, PhD, FT

Wendy G. Lichententhal is a clinical psychologist and director of the Bereavement Clinic at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She specializes in helping people with cancer and their loved ones.

When you first learned of your cancer diagnosis, grief may have been one of the many feelings you experienced. It is natural to grieve when we go through loss or change—whether it is the loss of who you were before your diagnosis or the loss of physical body parts. And since cancer often results in many losses—expected and unexpected—grief is naturally part of the experience.

As time passes, you may feel surprised that you still have waves of grief. Sometimes it may be connected to milestones in your cancer experience that were particularly emotional, such as anniversaries of a diagnosis, a medical crisis, or the start of treatment. Other times it may seem out of the blue. For instance, grief may appear when you’re trying on a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit the same as it did before your diagnosis. Or it may emerge when you’re making a plan for the future that has been altered because your life was interrupted by cancer.

Regardless of why or when it happens, grief is a natural response to loss and change.share on twitter Here are some ways to help you cope:

Find ways to process your feelings

This is hard. It’s important to give yourself permission to just be with your feelings as they make their way to the surface. Try to think about what you offer others when they are grieving a loss. Can you give yourself that same compassionate response? Remember that the way you feel about your experience makes sense based on your perspective and your story.

Allow yourself to experience the waves of grief. Recognize that they are temporary, manageable, and natural. The more we try to fight the wave, the more it may feel like we’re drowning from it. Instead, ride the wave. It is important to also give yourself permission to have feelings that may seem at odds with one another. For example, allow yourself to feel both sad and grateful at the same time, if that’s what you feel. When we believe we should be feeling a certain way, we can end up feeling badly about feeling badly.

It is common for people to push away their distressing feelings instead of expressing what they feel. Sometimes it’s because the feelings involve facing pain and fear. Or you may feel that once you share your feelings, you’ll never be able to contain them again. Try to find opportunities to process and experience whatever you may be feeling in a safe space with others who can listen. This may be friends, family, or a trusted professional. You might also try journaling or speaking to yourself.

Choose how to respond to your feelings

It is important to allow your initial feelings to arise. But that doesn’t mean you need to remain in a state of grief forever. While such feelings may seem like they are difficult to control, we do have control over how we respond to our feelings. It is up to us how we choose to think about them and act on them. Here are some ways you can respond to your feelings:

  • Give yourself permission to sit with the feelings. I often tell myself—“This is good. You’re unclogging the drain,”—when feelings build up. Mindful meditation can help you by increasing your self-acceptance and compassion.

  • Develop a compassionate mantra or helpful response. A mantra is a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself to help you stay focused. All feelings come from an understandable place, so you offer yourself kind words to support yourself, whether or not it is in the form of a mantra. For example, “Of course I’m sad.” Or simply repeat to yourself, “Compassion.”

  • Consider another perspective. You have the freedom to choose your perspective. If the perspective you have isn’t helpful, ask yourself about changing it. For example, you could think about the waves of grief you experience as a sign of healing. Processing the feelings related to what you have been through may be a lifelong process. Your illness will mean different things to you at different times.

  • Engage in a meaningful activity. Engagement is the choice to direct your attention and energy toward something that’s important to you. This is not the same as a distraction, which is used to get away from the feelings. Engagement allows for your feelings to still be there, but you are taking control of them.

Connect with what matters

Finding meaning in life after a cancer diagnosis can be challenging, especially because it’s common for your priorities to get shaken up. But finding meaning in your suffering can help you get through your periods of grief. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • How do I want to respond to this pain?

  • How do I want to respond to this diagnosis?

  • Who do I want to be?

It can also be helpful to think about what matters most to you and put the most energy toward those priorities. This may be relationships, work, causes that you believe in, hobbies, experiences, or even an attitude you have toward your illness.

Talk with a professional for more guidance

For some people, the feelings that emerge around cancer milestones and anniversaries can be intense and frightening. Consider meeting with a health care professional if:

  • You are re-experiencing memories in ways that seem intrusive and painful

  • You feel like you want to chronically avoid everyone and everything, including your own thoughts, that are associated with that time in your life

  • You feel on edge, have difficulty sleeping, or feel anger