REACH is so fortunate to have dedicated volunteers, donors, collaborators and friends who care deeply about the organization and this work. This connection to mission connects us in other ways. We have shared our personal celebrations and challenges over the years, as we are joined in the effort to build healthy communities by ending domestic violence.
During my treatment for breast cancer last year, I shared my hope that we could all support survivors of domestic violence with the same love and compassion and care that we offer to survivors of cancer. And that we will continue to work to bring an end to both of these devastating epidemics.
As I write this, some of you know that I am now struggling with overwhelming grief following the death of my sister from cancer. What does the future look like without her? Each day I am forced to realize her loss anew – a simple “How are you doing?” triggers an emotional response.
Those of you who have grieved know the power of loss – it is immobilizing. We feel so unprepared, scared, frozen in place. It is so hard to lose someone we love, someone who forms our identity, someone who is part of our story. We mourn not just the loss of the person, we mourn what we have lost in not having that person here as part of our story going forward. That story will unfold so differently, and it is so unknown at this point.
In my grief, I am surrounded by friends, family and colleagues who offer me space and comfort. Once again, I feel held and validated in my pain and sadness. And again, I can’t help but call attention to the differences I see between my grief and the grief experienced by survivors of intimate partner violence.
Grieving is a process. It has been extensively researched and described. And yet we can’t really know it until we experience it.
Before Liz died, our families saw the movie Inside Out; we watched it together on a rainy summer Massachusetts day. For kids and adults, boy and girls, this movie offers a perspective on how emotions, memories and actions are connected and impacted as we grow and experience life’s challenges and celebrations.
For those who have seen the movie (and if you haven’t, you should) my memories of my sister have become intensely multi-colored. Every memory now includes joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. My sister was so real – so honest and funny in her battle. She spoke publicly about her fight in order to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and its horribleness. She shared her humor, her authenticity, her brilliance. Those who hear her speak witness her anger about her disease, fear of what lay ahead, disgust at the pace of research, sadness about what she might miss, and the pure joy she found in her family. It’s all there.
She fought through the stages of grief: denial – anger – bargaining – depression – acceptance – as she lived with her cancer. After her death, the rest of us are playing catch up. Denial is our way of trying to protect ourselves from taking on what is too big to take in. There is no space to be mad: grief puts you where you are – there is no 360 degree view – no ability to look around and see anything else, no context to what you are experiencing. When we are finally able to look around, that is when the anger comes. And with it there is questioning… did I do all the right things? What could I have done differently? Finally we are able to begin to name the sadness – for ourselves and also for others – we find that the hardest thing to do is to simply be with someone who is sad – everyone wants to do something, anything when sometimes just letting someone be sad and being there for them is what they need. The hardest part is acceptance. I don’t think we ever accept our loss – what we are really accepting is that life will never be the same. The story is never going to be what was – it will be something different – we realize we must move forward. It is a meandering movement forward. I am coming to an understanding that the me that was before isn’t anymore – and I will be creating a new me.
My sister was fighting a deadly disease that has not had a new treatment in four decades. She faced it down and shared her personal struggle in order to advance the effort to find a cure, to change the trajectory. Acceptance isn’t defeat; acceptance is incorporating our loss into our lives and being changed for the experience. We don’t get over it; it becomes part of who we are. I am still living into the new me, just like anyone who lives with grief.
Go back and read Jessica’s recent blog again. Open your mind and your heart to survivors reaching beyond domestic violence. And let’s work together to find not only cures – let’s also work on prevention.
With gratitude to Lorraine Lafata, whose teachings in a recent training on grief are referenced in this blog and support our ongoing work with survivors.