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Help Wanted: Must be Tender, Tough

Editor’s Note: The following article talks about a suicide that occurred in the author’s family, which may be upsetting to some readers. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Learn more.

I want to share a story about a very much-loved family member who recently committed suicide. The reason I want to write about this is 1) I need to. It is therapeutic. 2) I just attended a conference that had a very meaningful session about the correlations between illness and mental health and 3) I believe those of us in this space (lung cancer) need to consider and possibly learn from this.

It’s still raw, so my apologies if this doesn’t come out exactly right.

My son-in-law, Kirk

My son-in-law, Kirk, was perhaps the most intelligent and practical person I knew. In fact, in my opinion, he was practical to a fault. To Kirk, emotions were inferior to mind, reason, and practicality. Emotions that did not align with reason, were unwelcome or not understood. At least, that was my perspective of him during the early years when I first got to know him.

Something profoundly traumatic happened to Kirk that changed everything. His mother who he dearly loved, developed cancer. First, she had breast cancer, which she beat. Then she developed ovarian cancer.

Kirk was an engineer by trade. He had an amazing ability to fix or build anything. I mean anything. He took family medical leave to become his mother’s primary caregiver. He spent countless days researching treatment options. He provided nonstop personal care for her. He applied all his skills and abilities, all his mental aptitude and reason to helping his mother.

Searing pain of deep grief

Sadly, despite his valiant efforts, Kirk’s mother died. He was devastated. While Kirk was overcome with the emotional anguish of his mother’s death, his father developed pancreatic cancer. He helped care for his dad.

Those of us in the lung cancer community lose our friends almost daily. Some losses are more difficult than others. But everyone who has lost a close loved one can relate to the searing pain of deep grief.

Not long after his father’s death, this man of reason and mental strength started being tortured by horrific thoughts about his loved ones (my daughter, or Kirk’s brother or sister) being kidnapped and killed.

For several years, Kirk did his best to deal with these thoughts. Ultimately, he could live with them no longer.

We are all susceptible to trauma

Why am I talking about this? This is not about lung cancer. No, but it is about the powerful impact an illness — any illness — can have on even the strongest of us. And in my opinion, Kirk was the strongest of us.

Amazingly, as his mind became frailer, Kirk’s heart seemed to become stronger. As his heart enlarged and became more tender, his torture increased. Imagine believing your loved ones would be hurt or even killed unless you did something to stop it. I cannot imagine a more horrific scenario.

What might we learn from this? I believe Kirk suffered deeply from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of watching his mother and father die.

Be kind to yourself and reach out for help

Friends, we see too much suffering in our lung cancer community. We need to protect ourselves while keeping our hearts open and tender toward our lung cancer brothers and sisters. And let us never forget our precious caregivers. They suffer so much, right along with us…perhaps even more.

I don’t have answers. I just want to ask you to consider how you can prepare yourself to endure the inevitable pain and grief of being part of the lung cancer community. Is it counseling? Joining a local lung cancer group? Is it helping others? Is it taking daily walks to be in touch with nature? Is it writing? Is it drawing? Meditation? Prayer? Is it volunteering at a local rescue shelter?

I don’t know but please take some time to consider your own mental health and how to be good to yourself. Being a lung cancer advocate is damn tough work. Only the strong need apply. But even the strongest of us need a little help from time to time.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.