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When Couples Grieve
Emotions & Challenges, Grief Journey, Losing a Child

How Suicide Loss Prepared Me for a Cancer Diagnosis

I was in a bookstore when I got the call on my cell. I knew it had to be bad news if the doctor was calling me herself after the breast biopsy. I stepped outside and sat down. I heard “definitely malignant” and “I’m sorry” before the call ended. I teared up but didn’t break down. What do I do now? Call my husband. Go back in the store and get a book on breast cancer.

The dreaded C-word. The word that older relatives, even some doctors, wouldn’t say 40 or 50 years ago when my mother, aunt, and grandparents had it. In my family, that was how you died.

“It’s a sock in the gut, isn’t it?” a friend wrote, recalling the shock of her own diagnosis.

Yes, but my shock absorbers have changed. The worst thing that can happen has already happened to me. My child’s suicide is a nightmare that will always be with me. Cancer, at least at this point, is an unwelcome guest—a condition to be managed. We each have our own private calculus. My instinct on hearing the diagnosis was to take charge, stay calm. I would not catastrophize, I told myself, unless or until there was reason to do so. I would try not to act out of fear.

The first few weeks after the diagnosis, I felt some of the same vulnerability and reached for some of the same solace as I did after Noah’s suicide. I was tired and slept a lot, while also having trouble sleeping. I took one day at a time. I craved comfort food, like big bowls of Japanese ramen. I prayed for healing. I felt the concern of friends and family who fretted: “You shouldn’t have to deal with this right now.” I told my son, Ben, that I wanted him home for Thanksgiving and for my lumpectomy the following day. He came, as he came so often to visit us in the year after Noah’s death. Much of this felt familiar.

Unlike after Noah’s suicide, after the diagnosis I welcomed distraction and positive thinking rather than crying fits. I didn’t feel the need to find a support group or talk a lot with other breast cancer survivors. I knew that everyone handles the diagnosis differently, just as everyone handles grief differently. In 2013, I wanted it known that Noah died by suicide and that we welcomed support. In 2016, I wanted to keep the cancer news more private because I didn’t feel like a cancer patient and didn’t want to have to deal with a lot of well-wishers eager to help. With the suicide, many people said there were no words, but with a breast cancer diagnosis, people seem to know the drill. After all, one in nine American women get breast cancer while only 13.4 of every 100,000 Americans die by suicide. The C-word is a familiar visitor, no longer so fearful, but the S-word remains laden with stigma, ignorance, and horror.

I’d never had surgery or general anesthesia before. In preparation, I listened to a guided meditation on visualizing successful surgery that suggested imagining everyone who loves you, living or dead, as a “band of angels” watching over you in the operating room. Thinking of my dead son and parents wishing me well made me cry so I decided that the living were enough to protect me.

I’ve been lucky with this cancer, considering. It’s small, early, treatable. I have good insurance and encouraging, competent doctors. I don’t need chemo—the other dreaded C-word, reminding me of my mother’s shrunken face at 47, cheekbones protruding, gray tufts sprouting on her head like a baby bird. If I’d had to have chemo or my prognosis was worse, I’d more likely feel like a cancer patient, more afraid and sorry for myself–at which point, maybe I would seek a support group.

In the desert two days before surgery, I saw the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen. Its perfect arc spanned the sky with thick bands of primary colors, like a child’s drawing. While meditating by the beach on the day before my chemo consultation, I sensed an unfamiliar deep, teal-colored light behind my eyes. I’ll take both of these signs as Noah’s blessing: You can do this, Mom.