Lifting the Veil of Sadness
after cancer loss
Newswise — For 37 years, George
Spilson was there to hold his wife Bess’s hand. When he died, Bess
found she had no one to hold onto.
“My husband passed away on Jan.
25, 2005, and you know, the strangest thing is that you see it
coming, but you don’t want to look that way. It was difficult to
watch, even though he went peacefully,” says Bess Spilson, 60. “At
first, you’re numb and you have a certain sense of fear, because
everything you’ve done, you’ve always done together.”
The hand that reached out to Bess
was from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center,
through a unique program to support family members after a loved one
dies of cancer.
After George Spilson died from
osteosarcoma, a type of cancer in the bone, Bess would find herself
overcome with what she calls a “veil of sadness.” She would find
herself crying without warning in the middle of the day or as she
drove down the road.
“I wanted to be able to smile and
laugh again and think of all the wonderful things about my husband.
I didn’t want to dwell on those last days. I wanted to remember a
lot of the good things about my husband and especially the fact that
all his hopes and dreams came true for him,” Bess says.
When a person is diagnosed with
cancer, it affects the whole family – children, spouses, parents,
and even family friends and co-workers. As someone goes through
end-of-life care, the family’s world may revolve around the
hospital. After that person dies, the family’s ties with the
doctors, nurses and hospital staff are typically severed – after
all, the family is not the patient.
“Families have told us that they
feel abandoned, that there’s not anyone that follows up or calls
them. So that’s where we’ve really tried to put our focus, to say,
‘Here are our resources for you, we’re available.’ When a family
member dies, the family has to continue to go on. By pulling in the
whole family and following up with them, it lets them know that they
do matter and that they are all a part of who we treat,” says Susan
Wintermeyer-Pingel, grief and loss program coordinator at the U-M
Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The process starts with a contact
to families after their loved one dies. Individuals receive
resources and an invitation to attend group support programs for
people who have lost someone to cancer. Social workers, nurses and
psychiatrists are available to help families cope with their grief,
either in a group setting or individually. For some, they may be
grieving appropriately and not need extra resources. Others welcome
“We can’t oftentimes change the
outcome of cancer, but we can help them get through and cope with
the whole process,” Wintermeyer-Pingel says.
For Bess Spilman, the support
group unearthed the happy memories she had suppressed about her
husband while she focused on his last days. And while in many ways
it was a difficult process for her, she says it was also cathartic
and helped her feel like she was on the right track to handling her
“What I’ve gained is the fact that
I’m not alone and that others have gone that same route,” she says.
“I think that group gave me encouragement, and actually held my hand
to go forward.”
Signs of healthy grief
When a loved one dies, feelings of grief are normal and necessary.
But when grief affects day-to-day functioning for a long period, it
may be a sign of depression or unhealthy grieving. Here are some
signs of healthy grief:
• Admitting the reality of the
loss. Denial is normal for a short time, but you must not continue
to deny the loss.
• Venting the grief you feel. Don’t feel guilty for showing your
• Not taking the blame. It’s natural to wonder if you could have
prevented your loved one’s death, but be realistic when coming to
• Recognizing the need for time to heal. Don’t rush your grieving.
Give yourself time to cope with your loss.
Tips to handle grief
There is no one way to get through grief. Here are some things that
• Understand that feelings of
grief will ease as time passes.
• Let others help you.
• Maintain a routine pattern for eating, waking and going to sleep.
• Share the burden. Talk to people about what you are experiencing.
• If necessary, seek professional advice for more reassurance.
• Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
• Avoid taking medications unless prescribed by your physician. Many
substances are addictive and can delay the necessary grieving
process. Feelings of grief must be felt in order to cope
successfully with the loss.
Celebrating your loved one
Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are often difficult times for
people who have lost a loved one. Here are some tips to help
celebrate while remembering and honoring a loved one who has passed
• Create a place to remember your
loved one. You can include photos, quotations, special memories and
pictures or other mementos.
• Toast your loved one in honor and in memory before an event.
• Light a special candle in memory of your loved one.
• Make a quilt, or have one made, with swatches from special fabrics
that remind you of your family member.
• Make a donation in your loved one’s name.
• Plant a favorite perennial in the garden or yard. Remember your
loved one as it blooms every year.
What to say (and what not to say)
When someone you know has lost a loved one, it’s often difficult to
know what to say. Consider these suggestions:
• “I am so very sorry you have
lost (person’s name).”
• “Things must be very difficult for you.”
• “She was very special.”
• “He often said how proud he was of you.”
• “Your mother often told me how much she loved you.”
Also keep in mind that certain
phrases can seem insensitive. Try to avoid these phrases:
• “It was probably for the best.”
• “You will feel better in time.”
• “He lived __ years and had a very good life.”
• “Surely you should be over it by now.”
• “She is in a better place.”
• “You will feel better once you get back to a normal routine.”