This is a guest-essay by Farah Abaza. We’d like to thank Farah for sharing her experiences with the What’s Your Grief audience.
Medicine is the art of healing hurt bodies. For physicians, that means that we’re taught how to heal; what steps you take to diagnose someone and what medication you prescribe. For patients that means understanding when your body needs to be healed. We don’t doubt that when you break a bone, have a heart attack, or catch a cold what you need is to be healed. What isn’t clear though though is that grieving is a process that also requires healing.
My sister, a physician herself, was diagnosed with stage 4 Inflammatory Breast Cancer at the age of 24. Through her many months of treatment and her journey in processing her diagnosis she realized that the language surrounding cancer was very violent. Patients “fight” the cancer, they “win the fight” or the “lose the battle” to their cancer.
She decided that she wanted to look at it differently. She recognized that the cancer cells were her own, misguided yes, but just as much a part of her body as any other cell. What was needed wasn’t fighting it was healing, and healing was what she tried to do. Nearly 18 months later we sat in the Neuro ICU being told by her physicians that there was nothing more they could do to help her heal her body and she had weeks to months left.
At the time I was 19 and completely and utterly lost. It was the first time I was ever being faced with the idea of mortality and to make matters more complicated I was a couple weeks away from starting medical school, one of the most rigorous graduate programs.
I talked at length with my family, friends, and my school to decide what I should do. Do I delay school? Do I push through and start as was originally planned? The person I usually would’ve turned to was my big sister to help me make that decision but for the first time I had to do without her advice. I didn’t realize at the time, but I had already started the grieving process in anticipation of my sister’s passing.
It has been about a year since my sister has passed and reflecting on what this last year has had in store for me I’ve realized that I missed a HUGE lesson. One that is fundamentally tied to my career and one that my sister has emphasized to me for the last 2 years.
Hurt people need to heal and losing someone hurts. I am currently still very early into my schooling and while I’m awfully underqualified to prescribe actual medications, these are the treatments I would “prescribe” for anyone grieving.
Eliminate “strong” culture: Similar to my sister’s disdain towards “fight culture” for cancer, I hate what I refer to as “strong” culture in grieving. I decided ultimately that since I was capable of compartmentalizing and burying my feelings in favor of being what society would consider “strong” I shouldn’t delay starting school.
A month in, my sister passed, and I continued with my process of compartmentalizing and not processing anything going on in my life. It was easier to spend 12 hours a day in my school library learning about how cells malfunction to cause cancer than to process the fact that my sister had passed away due to it.
I was praised for doing well in school, praised for supporting my family, and praised for spending time with friends. It was a positive feedback loop. The more I was praised the more I shoved any semblance of emotion I had down further in favor of “being strong”. I thought that if I kept pushing down all the feelings down, I would be doing the “right” thing. After all, I was being praised for it, but it was praise I was receiving at the expense of my own mental health.
People will tell you it gets easier; they don’t know what they’re talking about. Those of us who have lost someone know that it doesn’t get easier. If anything, you get better at not letting it take over your life and invade your thoughts but missing someone never gets easier. The problem with this statement is that for someone like myself, it riddled me with guilt. When months later I would break down crying, I had felt like I had failed some exam where the goal was to not let anyone know I was struggling. Processing just made me feel worse because I felt terrible that it hadn’t gotten easier for me.
Nothing disappears, so open yourself to feeling. In the process of maintaining my “strong” front, I made zero progress in starting to process, heal, and accept the loss of my sister. Hoping that if I buried it deep enough it would eventually disappear, and I would’ve figured out the secret to painless grieving. News flash: I was painfully wrong.
The week of my white coat ceremony, it suddenly hit me that my sister would never see me in my white coat. A realization that cracked me and hit me HARD. Months’ worth of emotions started rising and from then on I vowed to allow myself to feel things as they came up no longer bottling everything in until I exploded.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson to be learned here is that grief doesn’t look one way. I have been hurt by trying to emulate what I perceived as the correct way to grieve. Learn to give yourself some grace. It sounds like common sense, but I wish someone would’ve told me that it was okay to cry, okay to not be okay, or okay to completely break down. It doesn’t matter if it’s been 2 weeks or 2 decades. Grieving is a long process, and I sincerely hope that you choose to do what will help you heal regardless of how you think it’ll be perceived by other people.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.