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: sterilization, pain robot, brains, surgeons, Sharknado

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Rural women are more likely to be sterilized

Tubal ligation, also known as sterilization or “getting your tubes tied,” is far more common among rural women as compared to urban women. Of rural women, 23% said they had been sterilized; urban women, 13%. There is only speculation about why this difference exists. Some of the theories floating around are: less access to other forms of birth control; piggybacking tubal ligation onto post-partum Medicaid coverage; lower educational level. Importantly, 39% of those rural women regret their decision. We should be asking why they didn’t choose a long-term, reversible birth control such as an IUD or an implant (like Implanon) instead.

Somewhat cute robot helps reduce kids’ pain and suffering during injections

As a needle phobic myself, I was very excited to learn that there’s an innovation in helping kids’ distress during shots. The robot not only talks to the child in order to distract him or her from the scary needle, but encourages exhalation during the injection to help with muscle relaxation (video here). There are two reasons why reducing pain and anxiety for children receiving immunizations is important: excessive worry can make other parts of the exam difficult, and in the future, an adult who had a bad medical experience as a child may be more likely to avoid care. These both have significant health implications. If this robot can help, I say let’s get one in every pediatrician’s office—and maybe in internist’s offices too, for ‘fraidy cats like me.

Brain pathways involved with learning and changing behavior charted

This week the NIH published a study identifying neural pathways associated with learning and changing behavior in mice. The nerves associated with the switch from moderate to compulsive drinking were found to also have a role in learning and decision making. Researchers hope that their insights will be helpful in understanding alcoholism and addiction. Learning more about why some people can use substances in moderation while others become addicted is crucial to improving mental and physical health. Hopefully, these findings will also apply for humans.

Surgery residents operate less often under new rules

Medical residents (doctors who are done with medical school and are completing their practical training) work notoriously long shifts and even longer workweeks. Restrictions created in 2011 limited shifts to 16 hours for first-year residents and 28 hours for the more advanced doctors and everyone’s week is limited to 80 hours. Surgical residents have in turn participated in fewer hours of surgery because of the limits on working hours. Many doctors are concerned that this will put the budding surgeons at risk for not gaining enough experience. There has to be a balance between allowing doctors to get enough rest while also learning enough to practice on one’s own—the question is, how

Kathleen Sebelius may in fact have a sense of humor

Twitter blew up last night with references to Sharknado, a horribly wonderful movie about a tornado that blew sharks into a city. (I don’t know how that works, I didn’t watch it!) Buzzfeed immediately wrote an article claiming “There is no Obamacare coverage for pre-existing Sharknado injuries.” Kathleen Sebelius replied: https://twitter.com/Sebelius/status/355766513334108160 Hey, an ACA joke!

I leave you this weekend with an excellent infographic explaining pretty much everything you need to know about gender, sexual orientation, and the like…The Genderbread Person!

Genderbread-Person

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