Lessons from a Bereaved Cancer Parent on How to Emotionally Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

Almost two years ago, the worst thing in the world happened: my precious, loving, silly, joyful, brilliant, freshly two-year-old son was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Despite putting him through every treatment available, nine months after that, he suddenly began to decline, and one day, he came to die in my arms. 

For the past two years, I have been living every parent’s absolute worst nightmare, every single moment of every single day. 

And yet, for the past two years, I have also maintained a thriving psychotherapy practice; expanded my skills and hobbies and personal culture; developed a deeper practice of self-compassion; cultivated a stronger sense of connection with others both close and far and across different life domains; and immersed in a strong sense of meaning and purpose, more than I could have ever imagined at any point in my life before losing my son… 

This era that the world has been ushered into so suddenly and most unexpectedly, by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, reminds me in so many important ways of the life of a cancer parent:

  • One day, you and I each woke up to a whole new world. Nothing was as we expected it to be anymore. All of the mainstays of our day-to-day lives, everything we had come to count and rely on, everything that made us feel like our normal selves—our daily routines, our goods and services, our relationships with others, all the sights and sounds we had grown accustomed to—had seemingly ceased to exist. Our sense of normality, sense of safety and security, hopes and dreams for the future—all of these and more were shaken to their very core, one day, oh-so-unexpectedly. And this new world had no roadmap. We felt lost and disoriented and scared.
  • As we took in the intensity and severity of what was happening around us, we lost the luxury of ever forgetting, even for a second, how fragile life really is. Without a moment’s notice, everything can change, even for the worst, despite our best efforts and wishful thinking. Our shared experiences, like confinement to our homes, financial strain, social isolation, perceived scarcity, and a sense of helplessness, all combine to worsen the impacts of the situation further, while also failing to make it better. 
  • We learned, in an undeniable way, once and for all, that we are all vulnerable—that even we are impermanent.

When our basic sense of normal is so shaken up—when we understand that we are vulnerable to this disease, that it can get and take us or our loved ones, or at least, our financial means and other things that mean so much to us, this is such a massive weight that becomes piled onto our shoulders. 

“…even when the worst thing imaginable happens, we can still be okay.”

Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. 

Notice that in calm times, to feel free and peaceful and relatively unburdened, the fragility of life and our inherent vulnerability is not always at the forefront of our thoughts—it simply cannot be. To feel okay enough in the present moment, we cannot also be so terribly consumed with what might happen in the next moment, or tomorrow, or next month or year.

The burden is so heavy that we cannot sustain carrying it so much all of the time. Sometimes we have to put it away and change our focus to something else—ideally something uplifting, something that deeply soothes and nourishes, whatever that is for you (nature? connection with self or other? a sense of something bigger than yourself? something creative? something fun?). 

COVID-19 and its consequences are still going to be there when you return to thinking about it, and your time away will not change anything significant, so we can surely all afford a good, well-deserved, full break from it every now and then.  

The helplessness of all of this is a common theme that I am hearing people struggle with the most. We want to protect ourselves; we want to fix it, and we want to be safe. To this, I offer some food for thought:   

  1. There is only so much that we can control. If we trouble ourselves with trying to control it all, all we end up with is despair. Learn, through credible sources, what we best understand for now as being some ways to protect yourself and your loved ones, and take these actions, and then speak to yourself directly to remind yourself: “I have done everything I can.” 
  2. Because we cannot control everything, there will be things that upset or stress us, that we cannot directly do anything about. In moments when these feelings strike, try to embrace them, and try to embrace yourself as you experience them. Speak to yourself again, this time to remind yourself: “this is hard—really, really hard—and we have to get through it. This will come to be okay, somehow, someday. It will pass because nothing has ever lasted forever, so nor will this”. 
  3. There is a harsh reality that none of us can truly ignore right now: even though we have done all we could, and coped as well as we could, sometimes, things still go wrong or not as planned. Sometimes all that we can do is not enough, and the worst happens anyway… And even as we work to accept this harsh reality, I am here to tell you—because I now absolutely know this to be true—that even when the worst thing imaginable happens, we can still be okay. We still get to wake up the next morning, coax ourselves out of bed, and choose to find or create the meaning and purpose that keeps us going. We can make it through, and we will make it through. 

Suffering is relative. Many of you have already survived so much. Some other hard thing you lived through before this might have already felt like “the hardest thing ever.” This, right now, may or may not be harder. 

Remember that you are strong and resourceful and have a lot, already inside of you that can help get you through this. You have come this far, and you will keep trekking forth. 

Remember that you are not alone and that we are globally in this together through our common humanity and shared experience. 

Remember that we can choose to approach this current crisis with the goal of simply trying to make the most it that we can while trying to minimize negative impacts as best we can. 

Remember that the brain and the body respond to the demands that we place on them. Whether or not you can imagine this, you can and will grow in incredible ways as you live this extreme experience that is capable of stretching you, far beyond the confines of your previous self that didn’t yet have to deal with all of this. 

Remember that we can and that we will. 

Take good care. 

Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. is an Associate and registered psychotherapist at CFIR (Ottawa). She has a doctoral degree from the Saint Paul School of Psychotherapy & Spirituality and works in private practice as a registered psychotherapist. She works with clients hoping to develop a more integrated sense of self as a means to well-being and meaningful, lasting transformation. Reesa is also involved in the teaching and supervision of psychotherapists-in-training and advanced knowledge through research in her specialty fields.