Coping With Emotions

Survivor’s Guilt: Losing a Loved One to Cancer

Unfortunately, at some point, all cancer survivors will experience losing a loved one and will need help dealing the emotions that arise from outliving a fellow patient. Survivor's guilt is a normal reaction to losing a loved one who also battled cancer, but, when dealt with in a healthy way, it can be part of the healing process.

As a cancer survivor, I have learned that the strongest friendships grow between the unlikeliest of people. I’ve also had to learn how to cope with the emotions involved with losing a loved one to cancer.

I was thirteen years older than (and nothing like) Brooke, a teenager with a free spirit and pink hair. We only had one thing in common — cancer — yet, we quickly bonded because she understood why I left my car keys in the freezer (again). I understood why missing the school dance was upsetting.

Three years after we met, Brooke’s services were held on my birthday, and I experienced unbearable survivor’s guilt. Since then, I have learned healthy ways to cope with the emotions involved in losing a loved one.

Continue taking care of yourself

Don’t forget to take your medications as prescribed and keep your medical appointments. Eat right, get plenty of sleep and exercise. Like Brooke, your friend wants you to keep up the good fight. Sticking to your routine also helps you maintain normalcy during this emotional time.

Be patient with yourself

Acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to feel the pain and emotions. This loss may trigger feelings about your cancer experiences, including the fear of your cancer recurring. It’s also important to know that it is normal for your feelings to change and fluctuate on a daily basis. The key is to be patient as you process these feelings, and be sure to discuss what you’re going through with your healthcare team.

Celebrate and remember the good times

Journal or create a scrapbook of your memories with your special friend. Write a letter that includes the things you never got to say. Celebrate your friend’s life, and celebrate your survivorship — just as they would have done. I know a survivor who says she copes by telling herself, “You’re alive for a reason, so make every day count.”

If you met in a support group, continue attending

You may have been closer to your friend, but everyone in your group is feeling the loss and dealing with the same fears. Talking about it may help you (and them) to heal. If you are not in a support group, consider joining one.

Turn losing a loved one into positive action

When Brooke passed away, I honored her with a cancer research fundraiser the only way I could: I colored my hair pink and kept it pink one day for each donation made to a specific organization. Getting involved in advocacy work or helping a cause you believe in can bring a sense of peace, and help in saying goodbye. Whatever it is, find your passion and follow it.

Embrace your spirituality

Whether it is prayer, church or meditation, turn to your beliefs for help. Talk to your religious leaders and community about your feelings.

As cancer survivors, all of us will experience the pain of losing a loved one at some point. By developing healthy coping techniques, we can honor our friends by thriving.

Chris Kidwell
Chris Kidwell