Cancer and Grieving. An orphan's perspective. Part 2

Grief is a powerful emotion. Some people don't even think of it as an emotion on it's own, instead it's a form of fear. Fear of being alone, fear of death, fear of the unknown, and fear of abandonment, all wrapped into one terrible bag of pain and sadness. 

The grief my mother felt for my father was alien to me. He was her world, her best friend and closest companion. Nothing in the world meant as much to her as he did and all of a sudden nothing she could do would bring him back. This was the opposite to me as I finally felt like I could be myself now with him gone and not crushing me with his abuse and unreachable expectations. I wanted to help her through this grief but there was nothing I could do if I could not relate to her pain. 

As I said in part 1, the point of this is to help people possibly understand what it's like for somebody whose world is crashing down on them. Unfortunately the truth is it's impossible to understand unless it has happened to you. My mother was never the same person again, and I doubt I could have ever said or done the perfect thing to change that. 

When your husband or parents or anybody close to you dies there is a piece of yourself that is lost with them. Who they were to you will never be matched by anything else and will for a long long time only manifest as pain. It's said that there are 5 stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Recent research has shown that this systematic step by step process is bogus and that most people tend to experience a lot of these stages all at once and may go back and forth between some. After experiencing what I have I think it makes a lot more sense as my mother seemed to experience a bi-polar form of grief while experiencing several stages and then none. Depression and anger being two big ones and would only surface when realizations arose that my father really was gone.

For five long years my mother went through a downward spiral of depression and self destruction, all the while lying to herself and her children that nothing was really wrong. For a long time she turned to alcohol. She never used to have more than one drink at a time but she would come home for work and make two or three. It was her only release from the tremendous pain she was dealing with. I did what I could but as a 16 year old I had no idea how I was supposed to help somebody as tremendously stubborn as my own mother. She stopped working as hard as she used to and ended up being laid off. She got another job at reduced pay, but this did not stop her from spending money on food, clothes she didn't need and furniture she couldn't afford. Anything to distract her long enough for her to forget that her life wouldn't live up to the plans her and my father laid before them. 

Eventually she started to have tremendous pains in her stomach and it was discovered that she was abusing ibuprofen along with her alcohol to try and deal with this pain she may have manifested as the doctors could never find an origin for it. She had surgery for this twice and therefore had to stop drinking and taking the advil. The second time she went in we discovered a huge bottle of prescription drugs she was also abusing. In our efforts to help her deal with her depression we got her into rehab and counseling after a long long battle to convince her we needed her to do that. 

After that things started looking up, after 5 long years we might have finally gotten our mother back. All that she had left was an infection she developed in her jaw due to recently pulled out molars. After going in to have a piece of her jaw removed the surgeons had to stop suddenly and do a biopsy. It turned out not to be an infection but in fact a rare form of bone sarcoma. Cancer. The news crushed us, but we didn't let it beat us. I was afraid she would give up after that but she went through the treatments and 3 months later we were done the first big round of chemo and radiation. Our relief wouldn't last long as she developed a spot in her lung and passed of an infection in her lung in March of 2013.

The toll of dealing with the grief and depression of my fathers death took its toll on my mother's body and ultimately was a tremendous influence in cutting her life so short. I will talk about what I've learned from my own grief and how I've handled it in the final entry, part 3.

Brain Talk!
Neuroanatomy of Grief
In this entry I would like to talk about grief's affect on the brain. In fMRI research done by Harald Gundel and collaborators they noted specific systems that are activated when a participant is experiencing grief over a loved one. The researchers used pictures and words associated with the person that specific participant was grieving in order to examine the neurological responses to these stimuli when compared to the participant viewing neutral images.

The researchers gathered data on a number of regions in the brain and noticed increased activation in areas of the: caudate nucleus, the cerebellum, the posterior cingulate cortex and others. What the researchers noticed was a neural system that is in overdrive while experiencing grief has processes relating to episodic memory, face recognition, autonomic regulation including immune system, and general cognitive processing. This means that in a grieving person the processes that this system covers might not be working to their full potential while a person is experiencing grief. 

There are problems with this study however. While there was a control task, there was no control or comparison group. This system could be activated whenever somebody sees somebody important to them regardless of if they are alive or not. Also this study only has 8 people so the sample size brings more doubts into this conclusion. When reading fMRI and imaging studies like this you have to look out for the sample size since it can be tough to get a lot of participants for studies like this. None the less it does show a significant change in the way we humans handle grief at a neuronal level.


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