Once Upon a Long, Sad Month
October 1, 2014
October once was my longest, saddest month. Child Cancer Month—September—ended yesterday. Families who have lost a child to cancer don’t walk away at the end of any month. Their awareness does not shift to another disease or cause. Throughout September, I read about children fighting cancer, those who are winning, and those who lost. Photos revealing the ravages of the disease haunted me. Photos of those mourning the loss of a child to cancer resonated with me. Photos of children smiling in spite of their near-Sysyphean challenge gave me—give me—heart, because each one reminds me why this illness cuts so deep and stings to the quick of our souls. Children—their smiles, their innocence, playfulness, bright spirits, and hope for and dreams of the future—reflect everything we hold dear about children.
However, for those navigating the alien paths of child cancer, the tremendous challenges they face anchor them in the present. The future is too uncertain. Their razor focus is on the daily realities of living with, treating, and managing the illness. Advances in treatment mean that day-to-day reality of child cancer sometimes ends. Children go into remission and many are healed.
Other families and their children aren’t as fortunate; remission and healing are elusive and a child dies. They then are faced with navigating the alien path of how to live after child loss.
Not just during Child Cancer Month, but every month, I navigate that path over which I began stumbling on November 2, 1986, when my seven-year-old daughter Alexa died.
I still fall often, but not as much as in the early days, weeks, months. I’ve devised ways to plant my feet in a more secure stance. I look ahead before stepping. I also have devised ways to pick myself up when I fall. I don’t stay down as long as I once did.
One stumbling area that kept me down—keeps me down—too long is October—the anniversary month. I say month rather than day because the worst grief is not always on the anniversary of the death. For many, the days, weeks, and, for me, the month preceding are fraught with emotional and psychic peril. On this day, we were at Shands Hospital. On this day, Alexa had her last chemo. On this day, she made beautiful cards for a friend’s new baby. On this day, I hid from trick-or-treaters. On this day, our dear pediatrician said . . .
The first year, October smacked me in the face. I crept through it, the memories of that last month hobbled me. As more years passed, a vague sense of unease washed over me during October as I remembered where we were and what we did “on this day…”
Hardest were the Octobers I lived in the northeast away from my home state of Florida. September’s killing frost decimated my garden. October days meant trees barren of leaves and often-gray skies. Less light, less sun let the cold seep into my bones, reminding me of a deeper chill from that 1986 October. In an odd twist, and a blessing, by November 2, I often was not crushed and broken as I was in the preceding days. I had survived another year of loss.
It’s not always the anniversary that hurts deepest. Often, the days preceding an anniversary cut the most. Because of that, I want to further my own healing during these October days. In the process, I hope to further the healing of others—not only those who have lost a child or loved one from any cause, but also those who have lost a sibling, mother, father, friend, spouse—anyone they loved.
Loss will touch each of us. That touch can sear our souls. As a healing balm, I present a new October. Each day, rather than become snared in the dread of loss, I intend to spin a circle of celebration. I loved Alexa. I lost her. What did I love that made the loss so keen? What do I do, and what will I do to keep from stumbling—through October and every day, week, month? By sharing my journey through October, I hope to make your journey easier, to offer a hand when you stumble, to keep you from falling. If you fall, I want my hand to be there to help you up and back into life.
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Do you have a “long, sad, month”? Please feel free to share your concerns, struggles, victories in the comments. I welcome private correspondence at firstname.lastname@example.org.