I’ve been thinking about loss and losing things as I and my long-time friends grow older, although it seems to on my mind more often in this long year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many months ahead before we might be able to declare an “end” to it, but a return to something called “normal” life is likely to take even longer. What will we have lost? What will we have learned? What will “normal” be like?
I think of the losses—not just the deaths suffered—but all the other losses suffered by so many: large and small businesses going bust; jobs lost by so many people; the loss of freedoms during these necessary lockdowns that we took for granted…and so much more.
In the coming week, I’m beginning another expressive writing workshop for Gilda’s Club here in Toronto, and as I think about the sessions and the men and women who will attend, I think of the losses of cancer brings with it and how COVID-19 may add to the stress of living with a cancer diagnosis and the fear of loss.
What do you lose when you’re diagnosed and treated for cancer? There are physical loses and emotional ones. Some permanent; some temporary. I thought back to one of my earlier writing groups a few years ago. A dozen people, all living with cancer, seated around the table with their notebooks open as I offered a short “warm-up” writing prompt at the beginning of the session..
“What’s on your mind this morning? What thoughts or concerns have accompanied you to our group?” Within seconds, only the rustle of paper and pens could be heard, as everyone bowed their heads and wrote. A few minutes later, I sounded the chime and asked, “Who wants to read what you’ve written?” One woman, her head covered by a brightly colored scarf, quickly raised her hand.
“I’m angry about losing my hair,” she began. “It was always long and full, and it’s was my signature.” She looked up from her notebook, eyes red and teary. Several of women nodded sympathetically. I recalled my own embarrassment when, as a teenager, I sported a bald head twice after two neurosurgeries. I had no choice but to cover my bare head and the ear-to-ear scar with brightly colored scarves as I returned to school after surgery. I remember how vulnerable I felt without my hair, how embarrassed, and how I prayed no one would make fun of me.
It grew back, of course, just as the young women’s hair did, becoming full and long again over time. She was one of the lucky ones, just as I was; her hair loss was temporary. She recovered and regained a full head of hair and an active life—in contrast to other group members, who’d lost far more than their hair.
When I invite the participants to write about loss, temporary hair or diminished energy during treatment aren’t at the top of the list. Bodies are altered by surgeries and scars. Dreams are lost. Friends are lost. Loved ones are lost—whether by death or by the dynamics of families unable to come together in crisis. Although many may return to a so-called “normal” life, their lives are rarely the same as they were before cancer.
Being human demands that we come to terms with different losses at different times in our lives, small or large. We all experience them. Life requires our continual adjustment to the changing seasons of being alive and learning to let go of old ways of being that no longer serve us or are possible. It’s not easy, this business of loss and losing. Yet, it is the thing we all are challenged to master—and learn from.
Then we couldn’t help expressing grief
So many things descended without warning:
labor wasted, loves lost, houses gone,
marriages broken, friends estranged,
ambitions worn away by immediate needs.
Words lined up in our throats
for a good whining.
Grief seemed like an endless river—
the only immortal flow of life.
After losing a land and then giving up a tongue,
we stopped talking of grief
Smiles began to brighten our faces.
We laugh a lot, at our own mess.
Things become beautiful,
even hailstones in the strawberry fields.
(From: “Ways of Talking, “by Ha Jin, in Facing Shadows, 1996)
Write about loss this week, about losing something—small or large—whether from cancer, life changes, unexpected tragedies or challenges. Write what you felt. Describe how you came to accept and move forward from the losses you suffered.