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Surviving the survivor’s guilt

By Mandy Lamothe

I miss you. I miss all of you. It seems so unfair to meet these wonderful people with whom you share having cancer (some even the same cancer as you) and they pass, yet you survive. Here are these great humans who from the moment you meet, you will form a beautiful friendship with, but then whose diagnoses will become terminal and they are given less than six months to live.  

I have been involved and connected to YACC (and the YACC Family) since May 2017. The reality of being in “the cancer club” is that people are going to pass. They will get sicker. They may be younger than you and they may not even be as sick as you, but for some reason the universe conspires against them.  

In order to help find light where there can be so much darkness, I have my YACC besties. They are my people. We chat daily, we have formed a special bond with each other, and have a love that is hard to describe. When one hurts, we all hurt.  

Recently, one of our besties passed, and I can speak for us all when I say “I AM FUCKING ANGRY!” I asked two of my YACC besties to describe “survivor’s guilt,” and they were both able to sum it up perfectly. 

Gerard Schultz says: 
“For me, survivor’s guilt is almost as difficult to deal with as the actual post-cancer side effects. There are pills for the physical side effects, and talking to your support groups and leaning on them can help reduce the feelings of guilt, but there’s also no way of knowing when the guilt can pop up. It can be something as simple as seeing a flower on the porch. When I have those moments of guilt, I let myself feel sad as that is part of the process, but I’m trying now  to focus on the best memories I have of that person to counteract the sadness. It’s a difficult process to work through but much like everything else in cancer-land, you just have to be patient, be kind to yourself and know that it’s ok to feel how you feel.” 

“I’m trying now  to focus on the best memories I have of that person.”

My dearest Paula Veinotte-Nickerson,had this to say: “Since I joined YACC, I’ve made so many new friends (family) with people who get it. Along this journey, I’ve lost some amazing people whom I wanted so much more time with. My heart hurts that I won’t hear their voices, get a hug, or see that smile anymore. I cherish every memory and I have so much respect for them and the fight they fought. Loss through YACC isn’t like losing a family member, it feels like so much more. It feels like I’ve known this person way before we actually met. I’m stronger for knowing them and I have realized I have to accept and allow the feelings that surface to take time to process the guilt, grief, and loss that has accompanied this loss of life. I’ve also accepted that these feelings can be overwhelming and if they become less manageable over time, it is important for me to seek help. I’m stronger for every moment, every memory, every conversation, and every step I take.” 

“I have to accept and allow the feelings that surface, to take time to process.”

“I get frustrated knowing I’m still here and wishing they were, too. To help cope with a recent loss, every morning I have a coffee and allow my mind to think of my coffee buddy who has left this world way too early. I think of my buddy often, and look at his photos and remember how happy he was to always see everyone. His smile was contagious and will keep me smiling forever. Always talk about the people you’ve lost always keep their memory alive.” 

I couldn’t agree more with Gerard and Paula’s statements. We have lost so many people, all of them way before their time. For our sweet CW, he was always smiling, always laughing, and just full of love for each and every person he met. Knowing that he was sick and dying broke all of our hearts. How could someone that beautiful be leaving us far, far sooner than he should have? How could any of our YACC family members leave us so early? Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, spouses, friends. It’s unfair and seems so cruel to bring in all these amazing folks only to have them pass seemingly so long before their time.  

So how do you move on? How do you stop the pain and the anger? I found, you don’t. You honour them like Gerard and Paula said. For me, meditation and prayer have helped me to a great degree. It was a beautiful way to send CW love and light as he was leaving this world. Getting out in nature, hugging trees (you’ll share in their energy), and walking daily. Remembering their laugh and their hugs, their smile, and the times you’ve spent together — both good times and bad times. Our friends are never gone completely, we need to honour their memories, and thinking of them daily allows us to do this.  

Journaling is another method that helps me move forward. Putting my feelings to paper helps provide a sense of wholeness. It’s ok to be angry, but don’t live there. Focus on what is good and what you have. I have daily mantras like “You got this,” and “I am safe, I am loved, I am protected,” and others I have printed and have posted in my “zen den,” my car, around my house, and around my work space. I have pictures of my YACC besties hanging all over, and I often send them love and light throughout the day. 

Survivor’s guilt is something we cancer folks have to deal with and it will never fully go away. Honouring those who have departed, talking about them with others, or having morning coffee in their honour are just some of the ways we can carry forward the memories of those who have left us.   

To CW, thank you for gifting me your friendship, that beautiful smile, that energizing laugh, and all the wonderful memories. You may be physically gone, but you will always be in my heart and the hearts of those you’ve touched.  

To all the YACCers we have lost, we love you and will never let you go.  

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