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: Hajj, pinkwashing, listeria, IVF, President Taft

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week.  

Hajj ends with no significant health scares

The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, called hajj, concludes today. Public health officials worried about the spread of MERS as well as the annual concerns of fires, stampedes, and the transmission of pathogens through the ritual of head shaving. Thankfully, there have been no injuries or deaths so far (though we’ll have to keep watch for MERS and the infectious diseases associated with the head shaving). The number of pilgrims was down significantly from 3.2 million last year to just under two million this year. Hopefully, this success can be emulated in future years—keeping people safe during religious rituals should be a priority for Saudi Arabia.

 

Just say no to pinkwashing

I don’t understand how someone thinks that purchasing pink M&Ms or water bottles or scarves does any more good than donating directly to a breast cancer research charity—and in fact, it doesn’t. Luckily, Breast Cancer Action runs a campaign every October called Think Before You Pink, encouraging consumers not to purchase these products. This year they’re targeting the known carcinogens that are in various “awareness” items. They’re pushing for legislation that would require chemicals in consumer products to be tested for safety before they come to market, something that is not required now. Take a look at what they’re proposing, and even if you don’t want to sign the petition, please consider sending a couple bucks to the American Cancer Society or another reputable charity rather than buying a pink iPhone case

 

Food recall: listeria edition

There is yet another food recall this week, this time with ready to eat chicken and ham products from Garden Fresh Foods tainted with listeria (the irony of company names involved in recalls always makes me giggle). Garden Fresh had a previous recall in September involving foods sold at Target, Weis, and other outlets. If you bought chicken or ham salad from Weis, and the package has "EST. 17256" or "Est. P-17256" printed on it, throw it away! Listeria usually causes trouble in the usual vulnerable groups: elderly adults, pregnant women, small children, and people with compromised immune systems. For the list of recalled foods, see the USDA.

 

IVF has been a huge success

Preliminary research shows that there have been at least five million births as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is the process of stimulating ovulation, retrieving eggs, fertilizing those eggs in a controlled environment, and transferring the resulting embryo into the woman’s uterus. People choose to use IVF for many reasons: maternal age, fallopian tube issues, male infertility, or to allow LGBT couples to have a child biologically related to a partner. Infertility is losing its stigma in no small part due to the surge in IVF babies. Having options about when and how to start a family is crucial, and being able to talk about those options and decisions helps normalize the ideas for others.

 

Former presidents…they’re just like us!

William Howard Taft, our portliest president, seems to have used the late 1800s version of Weight Watchers to slim down. New research shows that he had a years-long correspondence with a weight loss doctor who suggested a low-fat, low-calorie diet combined with exercise, portion control, and daily weigh-ins. Taft lost weight, but complained of constant hunger—no surprise because he was limited to small portions of meat, vegetables without butter, plain salad, and cooked fruit. He was not able to stick to the diet long term, so he eventually regained the weight he lost, much like modern dieters. Permanent weight loss is incredibly difficult, and Taft shows us that even the powerful can struggle with their weight.

 

Oh, and I’d love if you’d check out the first episode of my new podcast, Action Phase!

Friday Five: 9/11, tobacco in India, painkiller labels, Chobani recall, child abuse & neglect

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week.  

9/11 responders are suffering from cancer

While we remember the 12th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, another attack is being waged upon the responders: cancer. So far, 1,140 people have been certified by NIOSH to have 9/11-related cancer. The types of cancer are varied—from non-melanoma skin cancer to non-Hodgkins lymphoma to colon cancer—and thankfully, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund will cover all related medical and mental health expenses. However, an important deadline approaches: if a person knew of their related medical condition before October 2011, he or she must sign up with the Fund before October 3, 2013 in order to have their treatment covered. If you know anyone who may be eligible for this benefit, please (1) thank them for their selflessness and (2) tell them to sign up ASAP.

 

Tobacco + India = Bad News

Approximately 275 million people out of India’s 1.2 billion population use smokeless tobacco or cigarettes. According to a report from the International Tobacco Control Project, the country could see 1.5 million deaths annually if the number of tobacco users is not reduced by 2020. What’s even more alarming is that 94% of tobacco users surveyed said they had no plans to quit, despite government efforts to curb consumption and self-reported regret for beginning the habit. Citizens groups also advocate for tobacco-free living. This ad from Cancer Patients Aid Association is an example of the kinds of messaging Indians receive.

 

Source

 

New labels for some, but not all, narcotic painkillers

The FDA has announced updates to the labels for extended release narcotic painkillers to remove the idea that the painkillers should be prescribed for “moderate-to-severe pain.” Instead, opiates like OxyContin (oxycodone) and MS Contin (morphine sulfate) should be prescribed only when a patient’s pain cannot be controlled by other methods. These changes do not apply to fast-acting painkillers like Percocet (acetaminophen and oxycodone) or Vicodin (acetaminophen and hydrocodone) because the FDA sees that class of opioids to be less susceptible to abuse and overdose. Hopefully the new label will encourage doctors to think carefully about which painkillers they prescribe. The misuse of these drugs is out of control, and as doctors are the gatekeepers of prescriptions, their cooperation is essential to reducing addiction and unintentional deaths.

 

Chobani yogurt is moldy

Beloved and wildly popular Chobani brand Greek yogurt has been recalled. The problem of bloated, exploding containers is said to be due to contamination by the mold Mucor circinelloides. Although this kind of mold is not known to cause gastrointestinal problems, 89 people have reported nausea and vomiting after eating the recalled yogurt. That said, if your breakfast is fizzing through the lid, please don’t eat it. Let’s have some common sense, okay?

 

New child abuse and neglect report demands changes to the system

A report released this week from the Institute of Medicine described the fractured, underfunded, and unevaluated way the US researches and addresses child abuse and neglect. There are more than three million reports of abuse each year, involving at least six million children. The most common form of mistreatment is neglect, or when a caregiver fails to provide food, supervision, protection, medical care, education, or nurturing and affection. The full report gives a sense of how poorly the US manages child abuse and neglect, and this infographic also gives the basics. Children who are victims of abuse or neglect are far more likely to have serious health problems, including mental health issues, so eliminating violence against children should be at the forefront of public health efforts.

 

This week’s Friday Five is extra-depressing, so I’m going to leave you with a bonus uplifting story:

Wearing a sandwich board may help you find a kidney donor

Larry Swilling of South Carolina has been walking around wearing a sandwich board asking for a kidney donor for his wife Jimmie Sue. A complete stranger, a woman named Kelly Weaverling from Virginia Beach, decided to get tested and was found to be a match. The transplant happened on Wednesday and both Jimmie Sue and Kelly are doing well. Bonus: Larry’s efforts have led to 125 new registered kidney donors in South Carolina.