I don’t remember the first time I realized I might be a widow before my thirtieth birthday.
Was it the initial doctor’s phone call and the mention of cancer?
Or the first time I stepped foot into the oncology wing?
Or was it the first time I watched my husband get strapped down to a machine that would scan his body for rogue cells?
Just as our bodies go into shock to keep necessary organs functioning properly, I began shutting down relationally and emotionally after my husband’s cancer diagnosis. It became easier for me to to say “I’m fine” when friends and family would ask, even though I very much was not. It’s not that I didn’t want help. It’s just when your world is spinning out of control, you sometimes don’t know what you need. My mind went blank anytime someone asked if there was anything they could do.
Whenever I became upset I would stuff those feelings back down, an automatic stress response I learned from my family culture. As a child of divorce, I grew up going back and forth between two homes. We never discussed our feelings. If there was conflict, we ignored it and eventually it seemed to go away. There was an occasional outburst, but overall things were fine. Or so we thought.
So that was how I always handled things. It wasn’t until I took in two foster children who had experienced significant trauma that I realized I had no idea how to deal with my own emotions. It was impossible to help my foster sons navigate their emotions without being able to navigate my own.
I began to realize that my way of handling my feelings wasn’t as handy as I had thought. It took several years into my own parenting journey to learn the validity of our emotions and the importance of processing them in healthy ways.
I still struggled with processing my emotions, especially in response to something as traumatic as my husband’s cancer diagnosis. I suppose I prayed more as my husband battled cancer and the depression that came along with it, but I don’t really remember. What I remember most about that time is we survived. Surviving his cancer diagnosis was certainly the goal, but I lost track of how I was dealing with everything emotionally.
Barreling through things like cancer and depression without feeling deeply the trauma we endured may have kept us alive, but eventually we come face-to-face with our emotions. My husband’s inward tendencies and my push-through impulses drove us apart. By the end of our journey through his cancer and depression, our marriage had been stretched to the breaking point. I was doing my best to take care of everyone, but I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself.
Being a caregiver is all encompassing. But putting our oxygen masks on first is not just a cliche, it’s vital if we are to thrive, not merely survive, in the midst of difficulty. Talk of self care has only been popular in my circles in the last five years or so. But I wish someone had encouraged me to tend to myself when we were going through all of that.
Since going to therapy, I’ve learned a lot of tips to make sure my needs don’t get lost in the mix while I’m taking care of other people. These days I am much quicker to accept help, more likely to tell it like it is when asked how I’m doing and less likely to stuff away my feelings. I’ve learned the importance of my emotions. Learning how to deal with them has made me a healthier woman, wife, and mother.