- Hearing that someone has died from cancer is especially difficult when you have had a cancer diagnosis yourself.
- Fears for your own wellbeing may sit in parallel alongside grief for the person who has died.
- Survivors’ guilt describes a profound sense of guilt associated with surviving something when others have died as a result of that same situation or experience.
Whether a person in the public eye or closer to you, hearing that someone has died from cancer is especially difficult when you have the disease yourself. A mixture of grief for the person who has died can be combined with fear for your own mortality, which many describe as survivor’s guilt.
We asked Perci psychologist Dr. Lucy Davidson and Perci meditation and mindfulness professional Laura Ashurst, to explain why this type of grief is so challenging and the coping strategies they suggest for feelings associated with survivor’s guilt.
Understanding grief in people with cancer
It can be unbelievably difficult and painful to hear of the death of someone due to cancer when you are going through your own cancer experience. Challenging feelings can emerge whether it’s a relative, friend, parent, spouse, or even someone in the public eye or news – each can be an emotional trigger at a time when you are going through something hard yourself, particularly when the circumstances are similar such as their tumour type, age or gender.
During the grieving process, some people find the five stages of grief by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler a useful tool to help frame and identify what they are feeling, these being: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Reactions to grief
As well as the understandable grief reactions (which can include feelings such as sadness, disbelief, yearning and numbness) when someone dies, there are often complicated feelings around your own situation and mortality. A death from cancer can highlight the volatility and vulnerability of your situation, focusing on one situation where there has not been a good outcome. It is natural to feel more anxious and uncertain as a consequence. Fears for your own wellbeing may sit in parallel alongside grief for the person who has died. You may feel guilt that you have survived or have a better disease trajectory than they did. This is known as survivor’s guilt and is a very common reaction.
Equally it is also understandable if the death feels too much to deal with while you are going through your own treatment. You may want to try and avoid or ignore engaging with the situation, preferring to distance yourself from other people’s grief as a self preservation mechanism – it may just feel too overwhelming.
Sharing your grief
It can be helpful to talk through any anxieties or fears that a death has brought up for you, but try to avoid Googling if the tumour type was the same as yours – remember each person’s diagnosis and treatment is individual, and outcomes are also unique. Let your family, friends and medical team know if you are grieving, or if the death of someone has brought up difficult feelings for you – try not to suffer in silence, tell someone if you are having a hard time. Talking to a therapist can be helpful to share some of the grief you are feeling, as well as any anxieties or concerns. Be kind to yourself and attentive to your feelings, and remember, it’s okay to feel sad at times.
Normalising survivor’s guilt
Survivor’s guilt describes a profound sense of guilt associated with surviving something when others have died as a result of that same situation or experience. Feelings associated with survivor’s guilt can vary in their intensity, but it’s important to understand that it is a normal and very commonly experienced condition, especially in those impacted by cancer.
Many people in the cancer community living with or beyond the disease, experience this when individuals die from their cancer and they are still alive, surviving the same disease.
How survivor’s guilt feels
It can involve feelings of not being worthy enough, or deserving to survive when others have died as a result of their cancer. This can manifest itself in feelings of guilt about enjoying life in the midst of the loss of others to the same disease.
The important point to remember is that you are not alone in feeling this way. As someone who has lived with incurable breast cancer for more than 13 years, I have been affected by survivor’s guilt many times when friends in the secondary breast cancer community have died, while I have continued to live. I find the depth of feeling after the death of close friends, and often those I know less well too, equally trigger feelings associated with survivor’s guilt.
Coping with survivor’s guilt
Mindfulness and meditation can be very helpful in managing feelings associated with survivors’ guilt and grief. One of the underlying principles of mindfulness meditation is acceptance. Turning towards how we are feeling with an attitude of self-kindness and self-compassion is an important step in acceptance. This allows us to acknowledge the challenging impact and presence of difficult emotions, rather than berating or belittling ourselves for feeling a certain way.
Our existence in the present moment is continually influenced by thoughts. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation creates the space to become aware of what is present and helps us to notice, with gentle kindness, the impact of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The powerful emotional impact of grief can be tenderly held in our awareness by focusing on the breath, as it moves in and out of the body. Mindfulness meditation provides an opportunity to say: “this is how I am feeling in this present moment” and helps us to respond to ourselves with kindness as we develop awareness of our moment-to-moment existence. It can help us to develop sensitivity towards gratitude for our survival, whilst at the same time turning gently towards feelings associated with survivor’s guilt.
How meditation and mindfulness can ease survivor’s guilt
Developing a mindfulness meditation practice can be a very beneficial and supportive tool in our self-care kit, as we progress through cancer treatment and beyond. It serves to create moments in the day where we give ourselves permission to pause and to check in with our internal and external environment by gently observing the flow of breath into and out of the body with each inhalation and exhalation.
Feelings of overwhelm following a cancer diagnosis can be gently held in our awareness during meditation, allowing us to recognise what is present. This can help to build resilience and boost our emotional reserves by turning towards ourselves with compassion and kindness.