Survivor guilt’s a bitch

While driving to GR to teach, I chatted with a fellow childhood cancer momma.

I went to class and had an absolute blast. Teaching feeds my soul. My job sucks it out and teaching on Monday nights restores it. Tuesday and Wednesday I was an absolute bitch. Moody, passive aggressive, mean. I know why; I’ve been here before.

Survivor guilt.

The momma I spoke with lost her son. She walked a completely different path than mine. Hers is worse. Way worse. Everything that we did for L, she did that and more for her own son, only it didn’t work. Her path is gut-wrenching, catastrophic. Cruel. Unnatural. Wrong. Parents should not bury their children. Ever.

Yet, while we talk she is kind, funny, gracious. We laugh. A LOT. She asks about L. Always. “How old is he now, what is he into, how is he feeling?” In the moment, these comments are lovely. I am awed by her ability to think outside herself and ask about my son, when her own is forever 11. Days later, I feel ashamed. Her kindness is too much. The light is too bright and I have to look away. I feel unworthy, naked, hypocritical.

Survivor guilt is a black hole, a vortex of rage, regret, and shit. It’s shit. My inner monologue is a barrage of anger and hope; grief and light:

I hate my job. But I shouldn’t hate it because my kid survived. My kid survived. I hate my job. I am not allowed to hate it. Yes, you are. You worked for five years to earn a degree that you thought would help you get…somewhere. You’re allowed to be frustrated. You’re allowed to strive for more. Or different. Nuh uh uh. No you’re not. Your kid survived. That was a gift. Suck it up. This is as good as it gets.  

My Facebook feed is people whining about Kim Kardashian and asking for video of her kidnapping. WTH? What in the world is wrong with people? The very next post I see is someone begging for prayers because another child is dying of cancer. I see things happening and sometimes feel as if I am the only one. I look over my shoulder like, “Do you see this? Can you believe this?” Fear, anger, people hurting. Six year olds get shot at school. We’re on the verge of World War 3 in Syria and a deranged bigot is running for President. There are kids at my sons’ school in a wealthy mid-west suburb who come to school hungry. A hurricane destroyed Haiti. Again. I get angry, like shake-my-fists-at-the-sky angry. “Why aren’t people noticing? Why don’t people care?”

I want to call my friend back and shout: “Please stop. Stop being so kind. I don’t deserve it. It’s too much. Too much. Why aren’t you shaking with rage? Everything you went through and…..”

While I was home sick two weeks ago, I tore through Glennon Doyle Melton’s new book, Love Warrior. She refers to herself as a canary in a coal mine. Canaries are brought in because they can sense toxins better than humans. When the canary stops singing, it’s time to go. She stopped singing because she sensed toxins. That doesn’t make her crazy, it makes her smart.

Maybe I am a canary, too. I see and feel things that others don’t. Maybe that makes me…me. I should embrace that person, instead of feeling bad that I feel all the things. I need to pull myself out of the guilt spiral and find a place that wants to hear my song. Because really, it’s not guilt I feel. It’s shame. I am ashamed that eight years post-diagnosis and six years off-treatment, I am still…not where I thought I would be.

I am supposed to be different as a result of L’s cancer. Aren’t I? More aware. More…something. Wouldn’t that have made 2008-2010 “worth it” on some level? Aren’t I supposed to be gracious and kind and loving, like my friend who is a tireless advocate for our kids, while she also grieves? Always grieving. She has been through hell and is a better person than almost everyone I know, when she could be angry for the rest of her life and be completely right in doing so. I quickly give others the benefit of the doubt, but never afford myself that grace. I see my friend as amazing. I see myself as a failure of graciousness. I secretly fear that if the roles were reversed, I would not be nearly as kind as she. My kid survived and I wallow. What would I be like if he hadn’t?

I have no idea what my momma friend thinks. That’s not my place. I am starting to believe that my role is to share good things so she can rejoice in them. Maybe hearing about kids who do make it helps her heal. Maybe that is part of how I can give back and heal, too….Show all the good. It brings me joy when I see others happy and thriving. Why wouldn’t my son’s progress and our happiness do that for others as well? I wonder if I secretly fear my own happiness.

I should pay more attention to my friend’s generosity. And really, that of all grieving mothers. There is not a single one who has ever made me feel bad that Luke survived. Ever. They have rejoiced more than me because they know the other possibility and they don’t want anyone else to endure it. That is the mark of a warrior and a survivor.

Grief and guilt are sneaky. Around the corner is a landmine that blows you back or a memory that makes you smile. It just depends on the moment, the millisecond that it catches me. Some days I am fine. I see pictures of baldy Luke and think, “Wow that was a different life. Thank God that’s behind us.” Other times, an amazing phone call with a friend pushes me underwater.

Glennon (we’re on a first name basis because I’ve read both her books, she signed my second one, I’ve heard her speak in person, and she retweeted me a few times) also says that maybe life is just hard because it’s hard, not because we’re doing it wrong.

Maybe grief and survivor guilt survivorship are like that, too. Maybe it’s just really hard.

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