A story of grief by a man and a boy
A girl I know lost a close friend very suddenly over the summer. Her and I bumped into each other over the weekend and I asked her how she was doing. On first impressions, you would think she was really well; she was tanned, smiling and warm in her conversation. She sent me a message through Facebook the next day, though. She explained that she had been feeling very low recently and that she felt she had been hiding away from the world.
“I guess I felt the pressure that I should be coming to terms with it by now,” she explained, even though her friend only died three months ago.
I understood the pressure she spoke of immediately, because I felt it when my wife died, too. From this experience, I now believe that many of clichés that follow a close bereavement only really serve to make a grieving person feel worse: ‘be strong’, ‘time heals’, and ‘count your blessings’ – as if trite words can switch off deep-rooted and uncontrollable feelings.
It occurred to me some time ago that it’s only really the most misfortunate people who are put under pressure to take any good fortune that remains into account. Maybe only those who feel like all their blessings have been taken away are told that they must call a recount. This, one could argue, puts an awful lot of pressure on those who are surely justified in their feelings of hardship and dismay.
According to a number of thought-leaders, many women and men around the world will experience these same feelings as we are asked to ‘celebrate’ Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October. ‘There are some people who are not uplifted by the annual campaign,’ wrote the Chicago Tribune last October, ‘including some who are breast cancer patients.’
One study of 3,300 long-term survivors (defined as two years post diagnosis) shows that 47 per cent fear recurrence. In addition, 30 per cent of women who have suffered the disease experience a variety of treatment related side-effects, including an exhausting kind of fatigue that may continue for many years.
As a person who has known many people touched or bereaved by cancer over the years, I can quite understand why not everyone would be in the mood to engage in some of the more ‘celebratory’ aspects of this global awareness campaign. And it’s in that spirit that I’ve recently been editing a crowd-sourced book with The Estée Lauder Companies UK, which asks, ‘What happens after breast cancer?’
Understanding the pressures from society to get ‘back to normal’ after the death of my wife, it’s evident that many women find it very difficult to do just that after breast cancer. The mental and/or physical scars remain, even though the world around sees a person who has ‘beaten it’.
The free e-book – Afterwards: Reflections On Life Beyond Breast Cancer – aims to change the way people think by providing genuine insight into an aspect of breast cancer, which is all too often ignored.
The face of the book is a forty-seven-year-old woman from London called Paula Beetlestone, who told me about her road to recovery after discovering she had breast cancer in May 2012. Paula said she would never be the same person she once was, ever again. She explained that sometimes elements of her healing felt harder than when she had the focus of her treatment, because the symptoms were less visible. She told me that these invisible signs meant that she often had to shoulder the mental anguish of it all alone.
“It sounds like grief,” I offered – that expectation and hope from others that we’re ‘better’ now, which can never be fully met. It can feel like pressure; it can feel lonely.
Her story reminded me of why opening up about things – which are impossible to fully comprehend, unless of course you’ve been there yourself – is essential in helping others understand and offer appropriate support.
Afterwards aims to speak to all breast cancer ‘survivors’: those who have recovered or are still having treatment for metastatic disease and also the friends or family members that love, or have loved and lost, someone suffering from breast cancer. This collection of advice, shared stories and short anecdotes on life both during and after breast cancer is entirely sourced from people who have lived through the disease.
Paula Beetlestone, the face of the book and the campaign, explains: “My journey was far from easy. I was juggling a job and a four-year-old child starting school, whilst having to come to terms with a very different future. There is so much practical advice I could pass on to someone going through a diagnosis and beyond, including their loved ones. Little things help so much – such as gifts of plain food to combat chemo nausea, or a well-meaning text message. Afterwards will capture this and really help those touched by the disease.”
The e-book is available today via BCAcampaign.com to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October 2015 and to support The Estée Lauder Companies’ global Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign. You can also watch a campaign film featuring Paula, her husband Jeff, me and the voice of Elizabeth Hurley below. Thanks so much to everyone who contributed to the book through this blog.