A Year of Grieving: Reflections on healing from a medical student, sister, and utterly lost griever

General / General : Eleanor Haley


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.


One.

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.

Two.

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.

Three.

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.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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8 Comments on "A Year of Grieving: Reflections on healing from a medical student, sister, and utterly lost griever"

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  1. Phindile  July 5, 2022 at 12:25 pm Reply

    Hey, sorry for your loss. It’s incredibly painful to lose someone more so a close sibling. From the beginning of your blog I could relate to what you were saying. I lost my sister in 2017. She had pulmonary embolism. It was such a sudden death that till today I don’t know how to feel about life. From the beginning of your blog post you mentioned that would normally speak to your sister when making certain decisions but at that point you had to make the decision yourself. I think for me that’s one of the hard parts of losing a sister. The rediscovery of who you are outside the siblinghood. The realisation that we may not be able to get advice from the person we loved.
    I agree with so many of your lessons over the year and I hope that as you go on you can continue to share your experiences with others who maybe unable to express their grief.

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  2. Susan Pederson  July 3, 2022 at 9:56 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing about the loss of your sister. I also lost mine to cancer a year and a half ago. I listen to blogs about grief and receive posts from here, but I rarely hear stories from a sister who has lost her sister. You said so many validating things, and I appreciate it so much. I have kept a blog since my sister got I’ll, which was originally to update her many friends and family during treatment, but morphed into my grief blog for the first year. bestsisterever.net I have let it lapse a bit because I was feeling guilty/foolish/“not strong” but you have made me see that there are others who feel the same. Thank you.

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  3. Dian  July 3, 2022 at 8:22 pm Reply

    I loved your article and could resonate with everything you said. I am about at the same point in time following the death of my husband. Although up and down I go through long periods of feeling so sad and hopeless. Many have said that I am strong but I often don’t feel it at all. I don’t even want to be! Although today it seems easier, tomorrow could be totally different. I find some days I look at photos of my husband and smile, some days I sob and other days I cannot even look. So thank you for your affirming words. I also want to add that I loved your sisters idea that illness (of any kind) is a journey in healing rather than a battle. Such a comforting way to look at some of the paths we find ourselves on.

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  4. Elaine Ratcliffe  July 3, 2022 at 1:43 pm Reply

    It has been 2 years since my husband died and I don’t find the grief any easier to deal with. During the first year people kept saying it hasn’t been a year yet as if it was some benchmark. I have found that 2 years feels just as bad. Grief is a big black cloud that plays tricks with your mind, stops you from having fun and prevents you from moving on. I don’t know how to get through this grief but I do know it has changed me as a person and it annoys me when people get all annoyed at trivial issues. Unfortunately we will all grieve at some point in our life and there is still no “cure” for it. Basically, it sucks

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    • Carolina  July 5, 2022 at 1:14 pm Reply

      It’s been 15 months & I agree, the grief doesn’t get easier to deal with. I find most days I’m angry, then at night I break down because my anger wears me out.

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  5. Triah  July 2, 2022 at 3:13 pm Reply

    While I agree that “it doesn’t get easier”, over time the pain and sadness does soften and become more bearable. Most of the time. Some days are just “oh god, just forget it.” But after almost 6 years, the scar tissue on my heart and soul has started to toughen, I guess you could say. I’ve stopped fighting it as much. Not acceptance as much as resignation that the grief and his absence are permanent now and I can’t change that. I still love you, Paul: always have and always will. 💔

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    • Carolina  July 5, 2022 at 1:08 pm Reply

      Triah,
      Its been 15 months for me & I can’t still yet accept what has happened. I still feel like it was yesterday, this pain in my chest won’t go away. I think, my husband was here for so long & how can he just be gone like that, it just doesn’t make sense. I write to him as if he’s away for work or a deployment, it eases my heart a bit. I am sorry for your loss, & mine as well. It’s hard to find people that not so much understand but just listen & not try to make one feel better by saying platitudes or comparing grief. I think if only I could talk to Charles, (my sweet husband) he would know what to say to reassure me & figure it out.

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  6. Suzanne  July 2, 2022 at 10:34 am Reply

    I’m deeply sorry to learn about the loss of your sister. It is a huge loss under very challenging circumstances. However, thinking that it may never change or that the grief will lessen, is a wrong assumption of many. It is ONLY one year after your loss, so in reality if is still early days. There is still a lot of processing and grief work to be done before one can be absolutely sure that it never changes. No need to project your whole future on how you are feeling today. Be kind to yourself.

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