Grief Triggers: Reminders Come with the Fall

As we approach the fall, a season that we love as we reminisce about the fabulous Michigan maple tree colors and the incredible apples, the season has also been tainted by the most difficult fall of all - the October when we learned that Colleen’s cancer had progressed significantly and she had run out of treatment options. Devastating, unreal, sad, heart breaking are all words that come to mind. We think of fall as the best season with unbeatable food, perfect weather, tailgating and football, beautiful foliage and mums, but it’s now accompanied by a feeling of unease.

{Jessica} I haven’t yet found a way to shake that earth shattering phone call from my mind - the one where Colleen called me to say in a shaky voice that her MRI scan was so bad that her doctors didn’t recommend further treatment. Ironically, I was in my favorite city of Boston with some of my best friends, looking forward to grand plans at my alma mater to relive our college football days. The months of planning leading up to the festivities quickly became insignificant as I listened to Colleen while sitting on a bench along Commonwealth Avenue, one of my best friends beside me with a concerned look on her face. I felt like time had stopped, the bustling city quiet, my mind blank and unable to process what this meant. What jolts me now is how she had the courage to call each of us sisters to tell us in her own way, in her own words about her painful news.

Heading into this fall, I have thought of Colleen as I constantly do, but can’t help comparing us. I am 38 as she was when she made that fateful phone call. I keep thinking of Colleen at this age and how different our lives are. She was actively treating her cancer and enrolled in a clinical trial, faced with an uncertain future, yet trying to live her life and plan ahead. I can barely comprehend what her daily thoughts were like, let alone understand what it physically feels like to take a chemotherapy agent while working and taking care of a young daughter. When I would ask her how she was feeling, she likely downplayed how exhausted and sick she felt. My summer was quite different than hers at this age as my biggest dilemma some days was what pool to go to. As I contemplated this recently, I had to make a pact to quit complaining about the children’s picky eating, cut my whining about the annoyingly congested aisles in the school supplies area at Target, and stop negative comments about the chores that didn’t get done over the weekend. I reminded myself that I am lucky to only have these minor problems to face.

{Shane} As the weather starts turning colder, the sun starts setting earlier, and even some leaves are already falling, I’m reminded of how disconcertingly beautiful the fall weather and colors were in Michigan during that grueling October. We gathered together as a family to figure out what to do next and how best to support Colleen, but we were devastated, in shock, and hardly able to grasp the reality of the situation. I remember looking out at my parent’s yard and feeling almost offended by how brightly colored and pretty the leaves looked. I spent a lot of time in Michigan that fall and winter, and the weather quickly got colder and snowier and started to match our reality. I had so much anxiety that season, not only trying to be as helpful as possible and not miss any opportunities to “be there” in the right way, but also simply juggling logistics of travel and lugging my infant daughter with me across the country. She inevitably came down with a cold on every single trip. For one month, I enrolled her in a local daycare at my niece’s school so I could help with school drop offs and get my baby out of everyone’s hair. Each fall brings reminders of one of the most difficult times of my life.

This fall, I’m looking forward to the future with a new baby on the way. It’s wonderful and exciting, but also confusing and sad that Colleen isn’t here and he won’t know her as a fabulous aunt, and that I get to grow my family and plan to watch my children grow up. My life is moving on, and it surprises me sometimes.

We have learned that grief can come in waves and can be triggered by moments in time. Grief triggers are a normal part of the grieving process, and as this article advises, simply being prepared for the possibility can be a helpful way to cope. This season gives us flashbacks to our stressful time as a family, but also reminds us of the happy parts of the season that Colleen loved. It brings up a mix of emotions - good and bad - and we are finding ways to go on.

This fall, we are committing to being thankful for our health and for the privilege of being able to plan a future. Sometimes it is unbearable to think that our sister did not have it this easy. Colleen’s last fall season was full of heartache, disappointment, anxiety, and sadness. Although the chaos of school starting and the many activities in the fall can bring on resentment about being busy, we are reminded this year that it is a gift to be able to attend all of these fun events and enjoy the beauty that fall provides. We (including ourselves) take for granted what it is like to look forward to our children’s upcoming school years, go back to school shopping, run around to kid’s soccer games and birthday parties, or simply organize a fun night out with friends.

So this fall, we are trying to remember to be grateful for having a future and to embrace the many ups and downs of grief. We are constantly learning about our grief and as this Open to Hope article states, the upsurges of grief can come out of nowhere like a bolt, ambush you, and take you by surprise. As we get to know our grief better, we also recognize that Colleen would not want us to be sad during this fantastic season. She would want us to make the most of it, watch some football, drink a pumpkin flavored coffee or beer, and maybe even tackle homemade applesauce this year.