The Elephant Unique to Cancer Caregivers and Family
Shara Heiniger is a spouse of a cancer fighter continuing her story from the perspective of a loving caregiver, but also one who suffers in a different way. We hope you enjoy this as much as we do! Her first installment on this was the most trafficked post for Stages: Elephant in the Room
None of us know when we will die. Life is a vapor. Accidents happen. People go to work, get in a car, walk across the street, and die. We all know that life and death are unpredictable, but for some reason, no one wants to talk about death or acknowledge that it is going to happen to each and every one of us. As soon as you’ve started reading this, you have probably already felt uncomfortable and thought this blog to be morbid, but what I am saying is absolutely the truth.
The Elephant Unique to Caregivers and Family
When a cancer diagnosis comes, there is no denying this reality. Like I've mentioned before, it is an elephant that changes your life forever. We will always look back on our lives before and after cancer and the differences between them are so very drastic. The elephant’s presence fills the room and affects every part of our being and our health, our interactions with people and our interactions with our kids. We never thought that we would be the ones talking about Pete’s health over a meal or a random conversation with a customer at work but we have become “those” people.
The Elephant and Holidays
You generally never think about death until you have to. Another setting where the elephant has snuck into my life where I have a battle with my thoughts and that elephant is the holidays. I don’t know all of the reasons for this but I do know that it is a real thing for me and my family. And I do know that is something that anyone who experiences a cancer diagnosis deals with.
The elephant associated with holidays didn’t show up for me at our first Christmas after Pete’s diagnosis. We were able to have all of them home for several days and it was amazing. He would participate in the things he could physically handle and when he couldn’t, he would just excuse himself and go to sleep. We would hug him good night, then cackle on, play Nertz to all ends of the night, or maybe fall asleep to a movie.
But Mother’s Day was when that elephant had its worst wearing down of my soul. Because of my estranged relationship with my mom, I would always have a funk heading into Mother’s Day. For years, Pete would make it special for me but also show me grace and patience as he knew that I was trying to be present but that it was also a hard day. As our girls grew older and moved away, Pete would work to still make it memorable for me, although all of us knew that Mother’s Day was different than it had been in the past. This year, all I could think about was that dang elephant and how Pete might not be here for the next one. I went to church, put on a happy face, then sobbed the whole service. I couldn’t contain myself or my feelings about the elephant at all. When I was alone, after church, I wrote in my journal. I gave God all of the instructions. I let Him know that I wanted my husband around for years and years of holidays. I did not leave anything to chance. I let God know exactly how I felt. I informed Him of the plans that I had with Pete and I did not intend for Pete to be gone from them. I cannot imagine my life without Pete and God heard all about it. We have hopes and dreams for our daughters and I have no intention of all of those things taking place without Pete here.
While none of us know when we will die, the elephant had its way with me that Mother’s Day. I had every emotion possible. I was unable to kick the elephant off of my chest that day but each holiday, I’m getting a little better. If I have emotions, I don’t stuff them down but I deal with them and I’m giving the elephant less and less power. I have a choice. I get to choose whether it becomes all I focus on or not. Mother’s Day was definitely my worst holiday after his diagnosis but several holidays later, I chose to acknowledge the elephant’s presence and give myself grace in how my body, emotions, and mind were affected, but I also chose to think about the positives, the blessings, and how many times God has taken care of me and my family in the past.
All of us have battles. Sometimes, people say to me, “I’m struggling with this but my husband doesn’t have cancer.” Each and every one of us, though, has an elephant in our life. Satan uses the elephants in each of our lives to take our focus off of God and give the elephant more power. Dealing with that elephant is hard and emotionally draining, whatever it is. Fighting that elephant involves all of our emotions and energy. We each have the power, though, of how much that elephant affects our physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health. Something that I’ve started doing this past week is filling a page in my journal with the things my brain wants to focus on, the proverbial wormhole of all of the things that give the elephant power. Then, instead of living in that headspace, I fill up the next page with all of the things I’m deciding to focus on instead. I chose how much power I’m going to give the elephant to affect my day and the time I do have with Pete. I read my entries out loud and I give them the time that they need to be processed. I say to myself, for example, “I want to focus on how Pete doesn’t recuperate as well after getting his pack off on Day 3 as he used to” but then I say, “My God knows Pete’s body better than any human.” “I want to control _____ in my life, but God knows what we need and He can do immeasurably more than we can think or imagine.” “I want to focus on how many more years I want with Pete but I’m choosing to be grateful that we have today.”
Hope that Slays the Elephant
Each time I do this, I take control of what I can control in my life and I make progress in telling the elephant who is the boss. The elephant doesn’t stop existing. It isn’t smaller and it hasn’t gone away. I’ve just stopped giving it as much power. I deal with the emotions it brings but I chose to not let it ruin my holidays like it did my Mother’s Day. I still cry through church services. I still hug Pete longer on memorable occasions that I used to. I think about that elephant way too much, still, but every day, I am improving on letting that elephant be all I think of. I am choosing to think about the things I am grateful for and I am choosing to remember that God is bigger than my husband’s cancer. Pete and I have been through difficult times before and God has taken care of us. I know that the elephant is still there. I’m just choosing to remember that God is there too. And He’s bigger than that elephant. He is definitely worthy of my gratitude, trust, and dependence. He deserves all of my praise and thankfulness. He does not leave alone in the battle. He loves and accepts me just as I am.
I just recently saw someone’s social media post suggesting a change in wording from “cancer survivor” to “someone thriving despite cancer” and I really like that distinction. Whether you or someone you love is fighting cancer or not, or if you have another trial in your life, we all can thrive. He gives us hope, despite our circumstance, despite what we can’t control, and despite how powerless we feel.