Survivors Talk is designed to give our readers a chance to ask a clinical therapist, survival specialist, and sister survivor questions about paddling the muddy waters of survivorship.

Dear Cindy,
I recently lost a close friend to cancer. She was diagnosed and then died of complications quickly afterwards. I was a cancer patient myself and so I feel like this hits me extra hard. I can’t help but feel like I somehow “cheated the system” because she died and I did not. How do I handle this?

Dear Friend,
Your friend’s death after such a brief battle with cancer is a tragedy. Most of us would feel “punched in the gut” if we knew her and lost her as suddenly as you have. While survivor’s guilt is likely involved in this scenario, please don’t underestimate the impact of trauma in your situation. Trauma is defined as “the experience of anything deeply distressing or disturbing.” For instance, losing a loved one unexpectedly, as you did, would qualify as a “traumatic experience.” The effects of trauma can show up in many ways.

  1. Feeling disoriented or numb
  2. Anxious feelings or racing thoughts
  3. Sleep disturbance
  4. Irritability
  5. Anger
  6. Sadness
  7. Night terrors
  8. Mood swings
  9. Poor concentration
  10. Fatigue

While Dr. John Briere shows some helpful ways for people to heal from trauma through “sitting in it” a practice of mindfulness, please consider the following ideas as you wrestle through your loss.

Your survival had no impact on your friend’s death, it doesn’t work like that.  However, it is quite likely that your survival did impact her life. Often, friends of cancer survivors experience a bit of the glory alongside their friend who battled the disease and won. When someone we know gets thrown under the bus by life, and lives to tell about it, we are inspired and energized by their story of courage. Survivors represent modern day heroes for most of us and are often cited as a source of strength and inspiration by those around them.

But that’s not all, it is quite possible that your beloved friend drank more deeply from your life and light than you may know. Perhaps your story gave her comfort on a dark night or your words in passing created life inside of her when she was down. Because you have survived such an ordeal you automatically have more credibility than the average person. Your friends are more likely to trust what you say because you’ve had to test your theories out on the hot pavement of real life. And now, you offer wisdom and advice from a place of knowing, not just opinion. People trust those who’ve been there. You are tried and true. Spend some time reflecting on the contributions you made to your friend’s life when she was alive.

Also, while your friend’s death is exactly the opposite of what you wanted for her, it is quite possible that, once you have grieved the loss, her passing may actually serve to reinvigorate your own work and life. Consider dedicating the next thirty days of your life to her by honoring every cancer patient or survivor you meet and saying or doing for them what you would have said or done with your friend, if you had been given the time. She will live on in your kind deeds as you lift a little burden off of those still in the trenches.

My favorite quote is by Camus, “In the midst of winter there was in me an invincible summer.” May you find your own invincible summer through this loss.

Warmly,
Cindy

If you have questions about how to take your life back from cancer and live fully into the future with cancer in your past, please write me directly at cinfinch@gmail.com I’ll be looking forward to your letters.

The information provided in the column should not be used for diagnosing or treating a physical or mental health problem, disease, or condition. Please consult your medical doctor or psychologist or appropriate health care provider.  If you think you have a medical or psychological emergency, call 911 immediately.

Photo by Aundre Larrow

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