Thoughts on Grief

I don’t usually like to put information about my personal life online, but I know many people who have lost loved ones recently. I want to share my experience so that maybe it can provide a little hope to someone else. I also didn’t really edit this, so please forgive all of the ways I’ve abused the English language.

mom-teagan-grief

Today is the seventh anniversary of my mom’s death. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer around Christmas 2004, and she died just a few weeks after her 51st birthday in 2009. I had just turned 23, my sister was 19, and my brother was 14. She was too young to die, and we were too young to have a dead mother. We still are.

I don’t remember much of the year that followed her death--it was as if my brain couldn’t create memories. I was just trying to stay alive, and anything more than that was too much to handle. During this time, I described myself as “unmoored,” feeling like I was adrift on a rough sea with nothing to tether me to reality. Even though my mom had been sick for years, and I understood that cancer sometimes leads to death, there was no way for me to comprehend what that really meant, that once she was gone I would lose the person who created me, taught me, infuriated me, loved me more than anyone else. I didn’t realize how much she was my constant, the person who I thought would always be around and who had given my life stability. I felt really, truly alone for the first time. 

My friends were amazing. They gathered around me and held me up, literally and figuratively, as my new reality became clear. Some took charge when I couldn’t care for myself, some gave me a home, some were just there. They reminded me that I was still loved, even though the person who loved me most in the world was gone, and that family means more than having remarkably similar DNA. Despite that, though, my heart was still broken. 

There were times in that first year, and beyond that year, when I thought I would never recover. How does a person come back from these kinds of losses? How does a person who can barely get out of bed to go to work somehow feel like she’s capable again? Will there ever be a time when it doesn’t hurt to be around other people’s families or listen to an Eric Clapton song or hear the phone ring? Phone calls were the hardest--they still are--because I got the news of my mom’s death over the phone. I still feel dread anytime someone calls me unexpectedly. The moments between when the phone rings and when I answer are dread-filled. (So please, just text me, okay?)

However, aside from my Pavlovian anxiety response to ringing phones, I finally feel at peace. Today I went to work as usual, talked to people as usual, and will make dinner as usual. I will go to bed at a normal time and get a good night’s sleep. Nothing feels more out of place today than it usually does. It’s not hard to meet other people’s parents or hear my mom’s favorite songs. I miss my mom, but I don’t feel her loss any more today than I did yesterday, or than I will tomorrow. The acute pain has subsided. Sometimes I get sad--really sad--when I think about all of the parts of my life I haven’t and won’t be able to share with her. But the sadness isn’t all-consuming anymore. I feel joy and love and contentedness again, and I feel those good emotions far more often than grief, sadness, and loneliness.

Healing happens. It takes time, and therapy, and self-care, and more time, and distractions, and new adventures, and sometimes there are setbacks when new terrible things happen in your life. But one day, you will wake up and the person you lost won’t be the first thing you think about. They won’t be the last thing you think about. You won’t forget the person, but eventually the grief gets pushed out and is replaced with the happiness of daily life. You will think about the person daily, weekly, monthly, but you won’t be consumed with sadness when you do.

So if you’ve lost someone you love and you think you’ll never feel like a whole person again, please know that, in time, the pain fades away. I know it seems like that will never happen, but it will. Reach out to others to help you, whether that’s a therapist, a grief support group, or a trusted friend who’s also experienced loss. You can, and will, feel whole again. I did.

Friday Five: violence, HPV, obesity, smog, Obamacare

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Global rates of violence against women are alarmingly high

This week, the WHO released a study showing that more than 30% of women around the world have been victims of physical or sexual violence, particularly from their spouse or partner. The report also outlines the health issues associated with violence against women: death, depression, alcohol use, STIs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions, low birth weight babies. The WHO recommends that health care providers take violence more seriously. These findings remind us that violence is not a far away issue that impacts other people—all of the WHO regions have violence rates hovering between 23-38% (map). Whether we realize it or not, we all know women who have experienced violence against them, and we are all responsible for ensuring women have the education and mobility they need to keep themselves safe.

 

HPV rates are lower in teen girls thanks to vaccine

And now for some good news: the prevalence (number of cases currently in the population) of vaccine preventable HPV in teen girls has dropped 56% since the introduction of the vaccine. The ultimate goal is to have 80% of American children vaccinated in order to create herd immunity, meaning that enough people are vaccinated so the virus has nowhere to go. However, only about half of teen girls have gotten the necessary three doses of Gardasil or Cervarix. It’s time to stop stalling. Vaccinate kids and help prevent them from developing cervical, anal, or—as Michael Douglas reminded us—throat cancer.

 

AMA declares obesity a disease

The American Medical Association (AMA) voted this week to define obesity as a disease, identifying it as a complex issue that requires therapeutic medical treatment. They hope to reduce stigma and understand obesity to be a disease because it impairs some body functions. Critics denounced the decision, saying that because obesity is defined using BMI, it is not a precise diagnosis and that obesity has no specific symptoms of its own, only that it a contributing factor to other diseases. Although obesity is often characterized as a willpower and laziness issue, the resolution, as quoted in the New York Times, says:

The suggestion that obesity is not a disease but rather a consequence of a chosen lifestyle exemplified by overeating and/or inactivity is equivalent to suggesting that lung cancer is not a disease because it was brought about by individual choice to smoke cigarettes.

Hopefully, the AMA’s decision will lead to increased insurance reimbursement for obesity treatments, including nutritionists and gym memberships, as well as medical interventions and therapy.

 

Singapore is covered with smog

Fires in Indonesia are causing dangerous smog in the country and Singapore. Though no one has fessed up to starting the fires, they are likely due to illegal land clearing practices in Sumatra, which is west of Singapore. Today, Singapore’s Pollution Standards Index (PSI) hit 401, far higher than the “dangerous” level defined by a PSI of 300, and is considered “life-threatening” to the ill and elderly. Smog is a mixture of accumulated greenhouse gases and smoke, and is made worse by the combination of pollutants, sunlight, and heat that creates ozone. Smog causes serious respiratory, eye, and skin problems, and this smog is so thick visibility is seriously impaired.

 

Dems love the term “Obamacare,” Republicans don’t

The Kaiser Family Foundation June tracking poll shows that when referred to as “Obamacare,” 73% of Democrats responded favorably to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as compared to 58% when the ACA was called “health reform law.” Republicans, however, saw an increase in unfavorable responses when the ACA was called “Obamacare,” from 76% to 86%. Apparently, the pejorative likely coined by none other than Mitt Romney has been successfully appropriated and turned into a rallying point for Democrats in support of the ACA. Obama is a linguistic master, and this shows he can turn even the most negative epithet into a compliment. Take that, Sarah Palin!

It's the first day of summer! This lion knows how to celebrate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV1CVTPVAJg

The Friday Five: Angelina, E. coli, Tetanus, Cloning, Sodium

This is the first week of my new feature: The Friday Five! Each Friday, I’ll use fewer than five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Here we go! Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy

The lovely actor-turned-humanitarian published an op-ed explaining her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy (and probably an oophorectomy in the future). Angelina even allowed—encouraged? Demanded?—her doctor to publish her pre- and post-op treatment plan. The Internet unsurprisingly buzzes with commentary: some support her, some worry her privilege sets an unattainable standard of care, and some are concerned she lopped off two of her most attractive assets. I’m impressed with her openness. While most of us do our best to keep medical information offline, Angelina willingly shared hers, hoping her candor would help other women.

Swimming pools teem with E. Coli

A study conducted last summer in Atlanta area pools showed swimmers were cooling off in more than just water.  E. coli was found in 59% of the pools, and as the CDC says, E. coli is a “fecal indicator.” Uh oh, seems like we need a refresher course in pool hygiene. The CDC gives a good finger wagging, reminding us all to take a soapy shower before swimming and to avoid the pool altogether if we’ve been suffering from diarrhea. Pool staff also should remain vigilant about chemical levels and health departments must enforce regulations.

Newborn tetanus mortality declines dramatically thanks to UNICEF

When women give birth in less than ideal conditions, and non-sterile instruments are used during delivery and to cut the umbilical cord, both the mother and child are at risk of contracting Maternal and Neonatal Tetanus if the mother has not been vaccinated. In the early 1990s, tetanus was identified as one of the most common causes of death for infants. In response, UNICEF partnered with national governments, The Gates Foundation, and many others in order to vaccinate 118 million women. The problem has been eliminated in 31 countries, but the programs in 28 countries are still vulnerable to financial cuts and shifts in political support.

Human embryonic stem cells successfully cloned

Researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University implanted donated eggs with a baby’s skin cells and for the first time, the resulting embryos lived long enough that researchers were able to extract usable stem cells. This development inspires hope that we are on the path toward creating genetically matched replacement organs for those in need and treating patients with rare diseases of the mitochondria. However, the usual suspects (mostly Catholic leaders) have moral objections and call for the elimination of all stem cell research, even though researchers are not creating viable embryos. The promise of healthy lives for children and adults will outweigh these concerns. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: science will find a way.

Questions surface about healthy sodium levels

Federal healthy eating guidelines and the American Heart Association have long encouraged us to keep sodium consumption under 2,300 mg/day and under 1,500 mg/day for anyone who is over 51, African American, or has diabetes, heart, or kidney disease. A new report questions this claim. The link between sodium, blood pressure, and heart disease may be more tenuous than most of us thought. A low sodium diet may have unintended health consequences and may not, in fact, reduce risk of heart attack or stroke. This challenge to nutritional orthodoxy shows that investing in nutrition research is vital to population health and reducing illness and death linked to diet.

I leave you with the song that plays in my head every Friday at 6:00 pm. Have a great weekend!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOfgVKVulQk]