Q&A with Rebecca Whitehead Munn, author of All of Us Warriors: Cancer Stories of Survival and Loss

Why did you write All of Us Warriors: Cancer Stories of Survival and Loss? And, what is it about?

I was actually working on a different manuscript in November of 2017 when the idea came to me to write this book. I had just learned of my friend Melissa’s cancer diagnosis, stage IV colon cancer. She was a mother of three children and in her early forties. I was heartbroken and praying for guidance and grace. It was as if the idea was planted in my mind as I sat quiet in my house. An idea that I could be helpful to so many if I was to capture many stories of cancer survival and loss. I developed tips and tricks through two cancer experiences with my mother and believed I would learn of other advice if I were to ask.

Hearing of a loved one’s or friend’s cancer diagnosis invokes such fear that it is hard to think clearly or know what to do next. I involved my friend Robyn, who is a cancer survivor, in helping me find and interview both survivors and loved ones of those who died. Each story includes advice regarding how to approach someone you love living with cancer and tips and tricks for helping others feel joy in the midst of pain. This inspirational book provides a positive outlook of strength and perseverance through belief in a higher power, reinforcing the idea that the reader is stronger than cancer and not alone, and offering real strategies that cannot be found in online medical sites. There are 20 stories, including my friend Melissa’s in the introduction, of men and women, seven different types of cancers, and all stages of the disease.

What advice would you have for someone who is grieving the death of a loved one? Any tips or advice about how to best grieve, or not allow the grief to consume you?

My first book is about walking the end of life path over three years with my mother and I share some ideas of what was helpful to me during the grieving process. I am certified as an End of Life Doula and volunteer at a local hospice residence house. My advice for someone who is grieving includes the following, an excerpt from an article in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper on surviving grief:

“Surviving grief is similar to riding ocean waves, unpredictable yet a reality. Some days when we think we are not able to handle one more transition, another one starts to take shape. Whether it is learning to cope and live without your mother or struggling to find new holiday traditions in the wake of a divorce, life comes at us in waves.

One thing is constant: We all experience some type of loss from time to time, causing us to grieve in different ways. The question is: How long will you allow grief to get in the way of feeling joy each day? Will you let the waves surprise and define you, or accept the unpredictable timing and level of impact through coping skills?

Grief is a tricky thing, especially around the holidays. Here are some techniques that I have found helpful based on the situation and the way I have approached grief.

Silent griever

Some of us have suffered a loss that we are not willing to share with others or feel like we would be bothering our friends if we did. In these moments, when you’re grieving alone, I have found that being still and breathing is helpful. The key is to practice this for longer than you want to. Count each breath in and out. While we are human beings, the pace of our lives have led us to be more like human doings, with a focus on doing. If we are willing to be still and sit with the feelings, sometimes we are able to release some of the pain, but only if we are patient.

Situational griever

Some of us experience a situational type of grief, which usually comes with some type of warning or notice. This can include a job transition, a friend who moves away or the terminal diagnosis of a loved one. Like breaking waves, we see the trending nature of this change building up. Fear tends to magnify the impact, so in these moments, I have found preparing and practicing to be helpful. Imagining yourself already through the transition and feeling the new normal will dissipate some of the fear. With the fear minimized, clarity will surface that you have time to prepare, if facing the loss of a loved one, and the gift of choosing to share an act of love or asking your loved one questions about things you may not know.

Angry griever

Some of us experience a more sudden, shifting type of grief that disrupts our lives with a loud splash, similar to waves crashing into the beach with a force that spills water out into far directions. In these moments, coping skills may lessen the magnitude of the loss and anger at the unpredictable, enabling you to function and make it through an hour, then a day and so on. One of my go-to coping mechanisms is this saying “right now, I am…” — fill in the rest of the statement with what you are doing in the moment, such as putting one foot in front of the other. Over time, coping skills build perseverance and help to dissipate the anger and grief.

Our loved ones that pass away are in a better place, free of pain and suffering. The key is to remember how they would want you to carry on without them. Don’t harbor sadness and possibly regret. Instead, sit with the sadness and practice letting go.

When waves disrupt all that you used to know, relax and embrace them, for without the waves, nothing would ever change. And if nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.”

I have applied these tools in my life during transitions and found that my grief has been easier to manage and disrupted my day to day life less. The reality we all have in the human experience is to experience loss. I have experienced all three of these examples. I have learned that I am a planner and being able to give voice to my grief, name it, and put it into perspective in the rest of my life has brought me much calm amidst the chaos in this thing called life.

How about any advice for someone who has a friend who is grieving? How can we be there for a friend who is grieving?

For someone who has a friend who is grieving, it’s helpful to understand what grief is and what it is not, in order to be able to support a friend. Grief is not a season or something that will pass. The loss of a loved one leaves a deep hole in the person’s life. And it is not a hole that can be patched or fixed; only time will provide the grace to ease the burden. Your friend will have to learn a new way of living without their loved one. And your friend would benefit from you showing up, versus giving him or her space. Showing up could mean dropping off household staples like paper towels on the front porch and texting your friend that it is there. Or ordering meals to be delivered or sending gift cards. Or sending cards or calling often, just to say hi. Know that supporting our friends when they are grieving can bring up worry or fear of our own. Being conscious of these feelings and acknowledging them for yourself will enable you to be more selfless in your support for others.

Do these stories of survival and loss strengthen or weaken your belief in the Afterlife? Why?

In the stories about loss, both individuals speak of a connection to their loved one after they died. In one story, the connection was rainbows. So yes, these stories do strengthen my belief that our loved ones who have passed are closer than we know. I have actually experienced seeing rainbows on sunny days and have felt this friend’s presence at that time. My first book includes the experience I had with agreeing with my mother what symbol she would make herself known as after death, and on the third day after her death, I saw this symbol, a purple butterfly.

Some people grow through grief and become stronger. Other people can become tragically derailed through depression, substance abuse, or even suicide. What do you think is the difference between people who grow through grief and those who become derailed?

Speaking from my personal experience and what I have learned through the work I do, helping change the trajectory of substance exposed lives, the difference comes from connection versus isolation and a loving versus toxic environment. For example, the connection with others who either give you a reason outside of yourself to fight for strength or those who will prop you up versus tear you down, and an environment that is healing and supportive. In my darkest days of grief, I was able to see how easily I could have slipped into drowning my sorrows in substances. For me, my two children who were depending on me gave me the strength to push through the pain, grow through grief and move forward. One’s environment is also a key component of being able to grow through grief. For those who grow through grief, they likely have an environment that is loving and stable, where they feel comfortable being themselves, in a perfectly imperfect way. Grief has its own timeframe and tends to show its face in waves. Those who have supportive and nurturing environments have a stronger chance of growing through grief.

Did you experience any serendipity or synchronicity in your journey? If so how?

Since experiencing my mother’s death with time to prepare with her, I actually experience serendipity or synchronicity daily. It is probably because the experience pushed the boundaries of my beliefs and opened my mind. I believe we all experience synchronicity; we just may not be awake yet to see it. Some of the examples for me are getting in my car and turning on the radio, only to find my now deceased sister’s favorite song playing on the radio, warming my heart and helping me feel close to her. It is also checking out at the grocery self-checkout lane and finding a $20 bill in the change slot, although no one else is around. I have found that when I need my now deceased mother most, I see a purple butterfly on someone’s purse at the airport or in nature, flying just above eye level on my daily walk in the park. With my sisters and close friends, I find myself picking up my phone to call them and finding a text from her or him with the same topic I was going to call about. Or I pick up a book at the local bookstore to read and my friend says she just bought the same book.