“Adversity introduces a man to himself” – Albert Einstein
As I read Gina’s AKA @Ginashergold21 story I cried both sad and happy tears. She truly shows how we can move forward after our life has been destroyed by cancer. I am so thankful to her for sharing her raw yet incredibly inspiring experience of cancer as Bowel Cancer awareness month starts.
Incurable. Palliative. Terminal. End-of-life. I held our wriggly, giggly not-quite-one-year-old daughter in my arms as our oncologist explained that my husband had exhausted all treatment possibilities. There was nothing left to do. He was going to die. The bowel cancer he had been diagnosed with three-and-a-half years before had taken hold in his lungs and bones and was fast making its way around the rest of his body. We were out of options.
A few weeks before Steve’s diagnosis July 2012
Eight weeks later, surrounded by family, Steve died at home in my arms as Esmée played with her cousin downstairs. We’d celebrated her first birthday five weeks before.
Steve with Esme 17 days before he died.
The aftermath of Steve’s death was as you’d imagine. Shock, confusion, tears, anxiety, anger, numbness, a terrifying fear of the future and probably every other emotion you can think of. The idea of being around people had me feeling paralysed with panic almost as much as the idea of being alone. I would sink to the floor, physically and mentally exhausted and I’d stay there for a while until I found the strength to drag myself back up again. The days and the nights felt long and slow and left me drained.
Steve and Gina’s Wedding September 2013
Then, the day after Steve’s funeral, I had a lightbulb moment. I was talking to a relative who’d been widowed suddenly on her honeymoon at 22 years old, 33 years previously. I was feeling helpless, heartbroken and desperate. I asked her how on earth it’s possible to carry on with life, how you can ever be okay with the fact the world is still turning when your life has fallen apart, how you even start to think about rebuilding from the ashes.
She told me “I didn’t die. He died, and I’ll always feel a massive sadness about that. But to choose not to make the most of the rest of my life, when his was snatched away from him, felt like I’d be doing him even more of an injustice than the universe had already handed him.”
Her words stirred something up in me, and I decided at that moment that I wouldn’t let Steve’s death be the reason I feared the future. It would be the reason I didn’t; the reason I would embrace every day that I was lucky enough to wake up.
So, how do you find it in you to not only keep living but to try to be truly happy again, when the worst has happened? I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers; some days are still a struggle to stay motivated and to feel positive and some days the heartache feels debilitating, but in the early days of grief, as I was trying to navigate my way around my “new normal”, I learned some things which have helped me – and my life now, although very different from the one I had planned, is a happy and fulfilling one.
For me, it was about making choices. Yes, life was going to carry on regardless of how I felt about it. That wasn’t a choice… But my reaction to the circumstances I found myself in was up to me.
I made a conscious decision to change the way I looked at life. I believe that the key when going through difficult times is to be kind to yourself. So, I started by rewarding myself for everything I achieved, no matter how small. The days I managed to finish a meal – win. The messages I remembered to reply to – win. Tackling small tasks made it easier to recognise accomplishments and quietly applaud myself for them. I starting practising mindfulness, to try to learn how to slow down and pay attention to all the little details I used to miss by rushing through endless lists of things I thought I had to do when Steve was alive. I set aside time to blog about what had happened and how I felt, which allowed me to process events in my own space and time without feeling any pressure or judgement from others.
When I say that these changes were a “conscious decision” I mean it – it didn’t come naturally to me and it certainly wasn’t easy to start to give myself praise over the smallest things when I’ve always been super hard on myself in the past, or to stop and listen to the birds or the passing traffic after years of worrying about what could go wrong if I didn’t tick everything off of my ever extending to-do list. Self-care became a priority for the first time in my life – it took a lot of practise (and, if I’m honest, it’s something I still need to work on). I dedicated some time to unearth the things that would keep me as well as possible, both mentally and physically, and tried my best to do them.
The things I learned back then are things I still try to prioritise now. Good quality sleep, keeping hydrated, eating well, exercising and socialising are the things I’ve learned have the biggest positive impact on my overall wellbeing. I use affirmation cards, essential oils and I practise yoga. I try to be patient with myself and I have to remind myself often that I’ve experienced difficult things, and that my best is enough (we’re our own biggest critics, aren’t we?!). All of this has played a part in helping me to rebuild my life and keep me feeling positive, even on the days when it feels as painful as it did at the very beginning (and don’t get me wrong; those days still happen on occasion).
I accept that not every day will be good, but I’ve come to believe that there’s something good in every day. When life gets particularly challenging, it can be almost impossible to see, but I really believe it’s there if you look closely enough.