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Before I begin with my next open and honest account of my own cancer journey, I must warn this is an open and honest recollection of my feelings of survivor’s guilt—a feeling I went on to learn was surprisingly common among several of us throughout the brain cancer community.
So firstly, what is survivor's guilt?
After finally speaking to a support worker about my feelings, I discovered what I was experiencing was survivor’s guilt. This is a broad term given to the feeling of overwhelming guilt that you are still living when another patient you are connected to in some way, whether it was a friend or a celebrity idol, loses their fight. It is the feeling of anxiety, guilt, and hopelessness that natural encompasses your being during this time.
Through support groups, I realised that every single one of us has a slightly different set of coping mechanisms, meaning the emotions I felt were very different to that of others, but all were normal considering the grief we were feeling.
My coping mechanisms were learnt when I lost my first friend I made throughout my treatment. She had been so strong and then was suddenly gone. When I got the news, I sat on the edge of my bed with my head cupped in my hands, crying for hours, thinking and cursing the world for being so damn unfair! It wasn’t just unfair in my mind that she’d lost her battle too early. In a selfish way I was furious with fate for taking my closest friend who could understand everything I was experiencing away and leaving me alone to cope with all of this. I cried myself to sleep that night and awoke the next morning to tell my mother the news. I was lucky to have a mother who was so very supportive of me, in my hours of need. When I was speaking to my mother, for the first time I vocalised what I was thinking deep down, “Why did she deserve to die while I am still living? I was diagnosed first, so her clock was set too fast.”
No matter how many conversations I had with people, I could not fathom, during this time, that it was not a matter of deserving to live, it was simply fate and the cruel grips of the cancer we had all been diagnosed with. I just couldn’t accept it. I spent days completely unable to settle, distraught and on the verge of just giving up my fight after we lost her. While I was grieving the loss of one of the nicest people I’ve ever come to meet, I was riddled with guilt. I knew she had a good heart and deserved to live, whereas I’d done bad things in my life, led an unhealthier lifestyle, and still made it through this round of my treatment. "HOW IS THIS FAIR?" repeatedly swirled around my mind. I couldn’t cope with my own thoughts and managed to start to find peace with my feelings after speaking with my counsellors.
I couldn’t help thinking, "Why not me? Why did they take her now?"
My amazing counsellor taught me that there is no amount of grieving or questioning your own existence which will answer these questions for me, in my own mind. I found closure was so beneficial to me,
In summary, what I’ve learnt from my roller coaster ride with Survivor's Guilt, and I hope can help you if you’re feeling the same, is:
Attending the funeral and saying your final goodbye will close your friendship on your terms, not in the way she was snatched away from you unexpectedly.
I may have lost the most incredible, warm-hearted lady I had met on this journey who took me under her wing every step of the way. I had learnt a lot about myself through her advice during her life, my counselling, and my final closure.
While it wasn’t her time to go, it also was not mine. Throughout counselling I have learnt that all the time I was wondering, "why didn’t they take me instead?" I was wasting the previous time I had on the Earth and was missing out on chances to live as she would have wanted me too, and precious seconds of fundraising or fighting to find a cure.
It turned out this phenomenon is very common amongst cancer patients who I had spoken to who had also lost someone. “It doesn’t get easier to lose another fighter.”
Remember, if like me, you are struggling intensely with the loss of someone, please contact your local support team because they are there to help you every step on the way.