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Helping someone deal with a cancer loss

Losing a loved one for any reason is painful, but helping someone deal with a cancer loss can require a slightly different approach. Here are ways to help survivors process what has happened, and to reconcile their own emotions after a death.

woman consoling friend after loss

Lose your expectations

People grieve in personal ways, including feeling “numb,” anxious, having periods of mourning and intense sobbing and accepting what has happened and moving forward. The expression of grief is complex, unpredictable and dependent on the survivor’s own personality, coping ability, age, gender, religious beliefs, mental health and relationship with the deceased.

With cancer loss, outside factors like duration and progression of the disease, the person’s ability to anticipate the loss, the survivor’s past history with cancer and financial stress due to lengthy treatments and hospital stays leading up to death commonly impact the grieving process. Never expect a survivor to behave in a certain way, despite how well you know her, or how “strong” she appears. For example, according to The National Cancer Institute, men typically have a harder time dealing with the death of a spouse than women do, and older survivors cope better than younger ones. Accepting the range of emotions a person expresses, as long as he does not pose a threat to others or himself, is the best way you can help someone through the grieving process.

Offer support

Social support is a key factor in helping a person deal with a cancer loss. In fact, it may be the reason that men have a harder time coping with the loss of a spouse — they tend to be offered less social support. Social support isn’t limited to listening to a person, or even being physically present, and it doesn’t have to come only from those closest to the survivor. While social support is integral from close friends and family, neighbors and even community groups can also alleviate the survivor’s sense of hardship, change and loss. Remember that a survivor who has lost a loved one to cancer may experience financial strain or need help with parenting duties, home care and general day-to-day activities that the deceased previously handled. Social support in these areas can help that person learn to cope with the changes resulting from the loss.

Honor memorable days

Support is typically not hard to find immediately after a loss, but as time passes, that help dwindles. Remember days that are meaningful to a survivor, even long after the loved one has passed. Beyond holidays and birthdays, future celebrations — like births, weddings and graduations — can be particularly painful for spouses and children who have experienced a loss from cancer. Make an effort to recognize the memory and spirit of those who have passed, and to remind the survivor that the loved one has not been forgotten.

Quick Tip

Be patient with a survivor who has suffered a cancer loss. The National Cancer Institute says that survivors may take anywhere from six months to two years to process fully through it.

More cancer support

Breast cancer: Coping with grief when you lose someone
Getting through breast cancer together

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