Lessons Learned in Grief

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was November 30, 2014 — my dad’s 57th birthday. I called to wish him the happiest day ever. But it wasn’t the happiest day ever. In fact, it was the worst day of my life (at that point) and in a matter of minutes my entire world crumbled into pieces as my dad bravely delivered the news that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung, brain, spine and adrenal gland cancer…and that it was not curable. And so November 30, 2014 marked the first day of my grief journey.

Throughout the next 5 years I would beg and plead for prayers as I shared a few positive updates as well as an avalanche of sad news. And I would receive a flood of emails from readers who either had already lost a parent or were in the process of losing a parent. I would cry over my keyboard with them, pray for them and ask them if I would ever be OK again. These people got it and could empathize with the unimaginable, mind-blowing pain I was experiencing. But despite the overwhelming number of emails I would receive over the years, I know there are many others who are also on this journey who I haven’t connected with. So in hopes that I can help even one more person not feel alone, I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve learned so far on my grief journey.

Grief begins at diagnosis, not death

In those early years I was so consumed with cheerleading for dad and fervently praying for a healing miracle, that I didn’t realize I was actually grieving deep down. I couldn’t identify the grief because it didn’t make sense to grieve while dad was still with us. But silently I was grieving the loss of normalcy for our family. I was grieving the loss of dad’s features — his ginormous belly, his quick wit, his hair, his beautiful tan skin from decades of surfing and more. I was grieving our usual conversations about the size of the waves he surfed that day or the exciting project he was building at work — our new conversations were filled with updates on his latest scan, blood test results, awful chemo side effects and other reminders that life was now different. I was grieving over the appearance of walkers, and then wheelchairs and then a hospital bed. Grief shows up early and…

Grief doesn’t go away

One of the hardest things to grasp is how life keeps going…and the sadness just comes along with you. Many people around you will move on, while you’re still feeling all the feelings. Trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way. But I hear it gets easier as you learn to incorporate your loss into your life. I still cry in my car, in the shower and sometimes even at my office. I still feel unpredictable pangs of sadness while making dinner, going on walks with the kids, seeing a red bird in the yard and being by the ocean. My therapist would explain the “stages of grief,” which apparently are no longer stops on a linear timeline. Instead the new model is more like a tornado that you cycle through in no prescribed order and you can be stuck in any stage for an unpredictable amount of time. 

Grief is exhausting

Grief will physically run you down, stress you out and sometimes make even the most routine tasks like writing a grocery list, running a meeting, making dinner or folding laundry difficult to accomplish. For years I felt (and still feel) like I was hanging by a thread, my patience permanently thin and my anxiety over when and what the next call would bring had me constantly on edge. There were days I felt like my insides had completely evaporated and I was just a fragile shell of a human trying to make it through lunchtime without a panic attack, an ugly meltdown or getting physically ill. Although it feels impossible, you have to take care of yourself.

Your spouse is grieving too

Written by Matt

Christina and I had only been married 3 years when we learned that Mr. Sandroni had been diagnosed with cancer. Caroline was about to turn 7 months old. We had just celebrated Thanksgiving. Over the next 4.5 years I saw a man I knew to be full of energy, kindness, and humor slowly fade away. I saw my daughter, and ultimately my son, interact with a loving man that they would really never get to experience and know. It was a very difficult time and still has its difficulties.

I learned a lot of lessons during the 4.5 years Mr. Sandroni battled cancer. When to say something, when not to say something, when only to listen, when to help, when to offer help, when not to help, when to ask friends for help, when to give her space, when to put life on hold, and when to say “yes” when you otherwise would have said “no” and being okay with that. My advice is to try your best to figure out what love and support really means to your spouse during this time, while realizing that it may change fairly often.

However, the most important “lessons” I learned during this time of grief were of my wife. I learned that she is far stronger than I thought she was. I learned that she is more caring and selfless than I thought she was. I learned just how priceless family is to her. I learned that she has no limits to what she would do for her family. I learned that she will always look for positive aspects in difficult times. I learned how often she puts me first. I learned how much I love her and how much she loves me. In addition to Mr. Sandroni’s cancer, during the same 4.5 years, we also endured the deaths of our grandparents, Christina’s surgeries, and Thomas’s unexpected medical condition. As cliché as it is, I learned that we can get through very difficult times together and as a family.

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22 Comments

  1. June 26, 2019 / 5:23 pm

    This was beautiful. That is a long time to grieve but I think you did a good job of also “living”. It’s not fair that he only had 57 years.
    My dad was 76, diagnosed with cancer this past November and was gone by December. I think you have to let yourself be sad when you feel sad. Have you heard of pennies from Heaven? If you find one, it is a message of love from your deceased loved one. I’m choosing to believe it and I’ve found so many and at times when I am sad.
    Sending you healing thoughts.

    • Katie
      June 28, 2019 / 10:50 am

      This gave me goosebumps, Amy. Very sweet of you for sharing the way that you find slight happiness with pennies form Heaven. Sorry for your loss.

  2. June 26, 2019 / 6:43 pm

    Such beauty in this post. I wish you both continued peace and strength. Stay strong!

  3. Fiona
    June 26, 2019 / 6:53 pm

    What a beautiful post from both of you, thank you for sharing. Wishing you prayers and strength to all of your family x

  4. Christi
    June 26, 2019 / 7:08 pm

    My “dad” has been gone almost 20 years. He was my step dad but I lost my biological dad at 11 months old. Just loss never comes at an easy time. I was in a high risk twin pregnancy with a little chance of carrying either to term. Plus a new house, a busy job, and taking care of my mom hours away because she had just lost her 2nd husband. I share that because at the time I went in auto pilot. The following decade followed with so much stuff and mentally I was on auto pilot taking care of everybody else even when I was the one going through chemo. You’re right all of this is mentally and physically exhausting. The sadness will always be there in moments but there will be joy and laughter too. It’s just navigating a new normal for which I don’t wish on anybody. And be careful to not minimize or compare your loss/grief to others because it’s different for every person. Keep cherishing the moments spent together and he’ll always be alive in your lives.

  5. Susan Foster
    June 26, 2019 / 7:13 pm

    I admire both of you so much! What a difficult, beautiful post. Christina, your father must have been a phenomenal parent to have raised such a strong, loving woman. I am 62, and my parents have been gone for more than a few years. You never “get over” the loss (and who would even want to). It is there every day, but you do learn to make peace with it. Remembering the good times gets easier. He is still with you ❤️ I l one that your mom was able to stay with your children while you and Matt had a much needed break. You have a wonderful husband, who loves you to the moon and back! Let yourselves grieve, but you will be ok!🙏🏼❤️

  6. Mary
    June 26, 2019 / 7:28 pm

    Tears rolling down my face as I read this. Everything you say is so true. I’ve told you before I lost my mom in October and the grieving process is long and when you think you’re ‘better”, the tears and anxiety return. My kids are in their twenties and I have to realize they too lost their grandmother, but some days I could only help myself. 8 months in and I realize I will always miss her. When something happens I think wait until my moms hears this!, and then I remember. I feel everything you said in this post. Some days I take it day by day, others hour by hour and some days I lose my shit multiple times. Grief is on no schedule and time seems to speed by but yet move so slow. I’m here walking the journey with you and I know we will both be ok, but it just stinks!!

  7. Sarah
    June 26, 2019 / 8:05 pm

    You are so lucky to have such a supportive and loving spouse to help you through. I lost my dad in college and worry every day about losing my mom. This post will help many. 💕

  8. June 26, 2019 / 8:39 pm

    Always thinking about you guys. Y’all have been through so much over the past few years. Always remember that He is good even when things seem bad. Xo

  9. June 27, 2019 / 6:15 am

    <3 What a heartfelt post that I'm sure will bring comfort to others experiencing their own loss. I lost my dad over 25 years ago (I was just a little girl), and while the process has surely been different than losing my dad as an adult, I've found that grief, as you said, doesn't ever "go away" …but it does evolve. I actually wrote a little post about it the day after Father's Day. Sending my love, hugs, and understanding to you.

  10. Emily
    June 27, 2019 / 7:10 am

    Christina,

    This is such a beautifully written post! Matt’s perspective really rang true for me, as we lost my husband Brett’s dad just 6 weeks before our wedding. This was a little more than 9 years ago, and I continue to grieve the fact that my 5 kiddos will never get to know their grandpa. My husband has handled his grief in a very different way than many, very quietly and personally, but loosing Dan has shaped our marriage in so many ways. You continue to be in my prayers as you navigate this very raw time. ❤️

  11. Jenna
    June 27, 2019 / 7:45 am

    This was so moving and I related to it so much. I lost my mom to ovarian cancer almost 10 years ago, when I was 21. You’re absolutely right – I realize now that I did start grieving much earlier than the day she died. It’s true that while the grief never completely goes away, life somehow manages to go on and you find yourself surprised at the fact that you are still able to find the happy moments. I remember, in the beginning, I used to feel guilty for feeling happy, even though my mom was gone. Though, of course I eventually remembered that she wanted me to be happy and that she was there with me, feeling my happiness too. Throughout this process, you will realize that you are so much stronger and can handle so much more than you ever thought process. I like to describe what I went through and the “recovery” to people by saying that when my mom passed, my heart broke into a million pieces and I’ve been slowly putting it back together ever since, but there will always be a little piece that’s missing. And I’m okay with that – because that spot is reserved for my mom. That’s how it feels to me, but everyone experiences grief in a different way. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  12. Cass Chisholm
    June 27, 2019 / 9:29 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s so hard. I lost my mom 5 years ago when she unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. Although our journeys through grief are a bit different, it’s so true that things are never really “normal” again. It doesn’t get easier; it just gets different. Thank you again.

  13. Toni :0)
    June 27, 2019 / 10:04 am

    Big hugs! You seem so incredible even though we’ve never met. I’ve always admired your strength in managing it all, whatever is thrown your way. God bless Matt, what a wonderful support system you have in him. I admire you both and your strong marriage. My husband and I have been married 26 years and I’m so grateful for him and my kids. They are my rocks. My Daddio is so special to me (sadly my mother and I are not so everyone’s closeness mentioned above with their mother, well I do not have that and its heartbreaking to me) but I treasure every moment with my special Daddio and you’ve helped to teach me to savor each moment. I pray for your family and I hope your memories bring you much peace and comfort. Love following your sweet family on the blog and instagram. Thank you for being so open and honest 💜

  14. Emily T Johnson
    June 27, 2019 / 12:17 pm

    Thank you for writing this- you said so many things I haven’t been able to articulate yet. My father, the most amazing man on the planet, struggled for 4 years with a rare blood disease. After participating in clinical trials for anything that could possibly help, he had a bone marrow transplant in March 2018 (www.bethematch.org for info and to become a possible donor). He was doing so well that by summertime, he was back our cycling and gardening. In September, he went downhill and passed away from AML in December. Between taking care of him, being the support for my mom, running my own household and job, I still sometimes feel dizzy. Random things make me cry, and I have learned to not apologize for that. I learned which friends are true gold and which ones took more of my energy than I can give.

    The hardest thing for me to accept right now is that my future spouse, future friends, and any future decisions will be without my dad. It breaks my heart that the next important man in my life, the one I choose to spend my life with, will never know the incredible man I was blessed to call my dad. He will hear stories and see pictures, but I know that it will be present to me just how important my dad was and will be in my life.

  15. Meghan
    June 27, 2019 / 12:30 pm

    This came at a good time for me. My mom died 10 years ago (I was 25). Just this week I got my Legacybox in the mail, which contained a thumb drive of all of our family
    Home videos(converged from the old VHS tapes we had stored in the attic). I had not heard my moms voice in 10 years and then here she was. I could not stop crying and watching her beautiful young self on these videos. Worse was seeing her interact with me – smiling, laughing and hugging- and yearning to have that back again even for just a moment. I loved the tornado reference because it’s true. As of this moment I am definitely back in the vortex of grief.

  16. Jen
    June 27, 2019 / 1:01 pm

    Tears rolling down my face… I lost my dad two years ago after a long and very ugly medical condition. Most of the time I am fine, but then out of nowhere it still hits me.. I haven’t seen my dad in two years. That will never NOT be hard. Sending you love and peace in your grief journey.

  17. Gaby
    June 27, 2019 / 1:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I identify completely with everything you wrote. I remember the exact date my grief journey began: April 6, 2017, the day we learned my mom had glioblastoma grade 4 brain cancer. There have been days I thought I was “fine” and other days where I feel like my heart will stop. After being somewhat “stable” after her diagnosis, the last six months have seen my mom steadily declining. Each week is worse and worse. She is now immobile in a wheelchair. This will never be easy no matter how prepared I think I can be. It’s definitely a new normal for us.
    God bless and thanks again for writing this–it came at just the right time as I’ve been feeling particularly sad today.

    • Megan
      June 27, 2019 / 2:14 pm

      My mom is also dealing with a glioblastoma diagnosis and I couldn’t relate more to the statement that grief begins with the diagnosis. Each stage is difficult in its own way. One podcast that recently helped me was Built to Withstand by Joel Osteen. It gets a bit repetitive but the message gave me some peace.

      Cristina I pray for you and your family and it’s not fair all that you’ve been through. But your not alone. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone either.

  18. Katie
    June 28, 2019 / 11:01 am

    Beautifully written. I agree with someone above that you all still did a wonderful job of living and continuing on despite the heart wrenching news . There were A LOT of genuine smiles shared as a family in those 5 years. I didn’t know your dad but he was obviously a strong man to fight the fight he did for that long with quite the diagnosis. It’s not far that someone so amazing has to be taken so soon. I love that you have so many memories to hold onto. Those memories and pictures being filled with smiles…..hard times as well but SO many smiles. You and Matt are incredible parents.

    P.S. I live in MO. No beaches around at all. Earlier this week while in traffic on the way home from work I saw an SUV with a surfboard on top. That is obviously not something we see here…..ever. Without hesitation I immediately thought of your dad. I hadn’t read your blog that day nor was I even thinking about you all. Your words, your story, your amazing way to connect with strangers is truly amazing. I think and pray for you often.

  19. Megan
    June 28, 2019 / 2:26 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve followed along since you were pregnant with Caroline because I was pregnant with my first too! I also lost my dad 7 months ago to cancer. And you’re so right! You do start grieving when you get that diagnosis (even if you don’t realize it). I also loved reading Matt’s perspective (I’m married to a Matt too ) haha. It’s nice to see how the partner is affected as well. Thanks for being so open and honest. Sending hugs. Also this girl Heather McMahan (on Instagram) did a podcast about loosing her dad and grief and it hit home, if you ever want to listen to it 🙂 she finds humor in it too which is nice.

  20. June 29, 2019 / 2:17 pm

    My dad was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer in August 2018. Your posts, your honest thoughts and experiences, and now this, have been so huge and meaningful to me. Thank you. I can’t thank you enough for this honesty and openness in the grief journey. Grief begins at diagnosis.

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