There are so many feelings that come with a cancer diagnosis. Fear, anxiety, and anger are just a few of them. The one that caught me off guard, though, is grief. It has been my most prevalent emotion.

Grief is usually associated with and assigned to death–having lost someone significant in one’s life. It certainly is that. However, I think many times people experience grief related to other losses and struggle to work through it because it isn’t named appropriately.

At my first oncology appointment, I filled out a mental health questionnaire. They wanted to know what I was feeling and offered a number of options. I was to check the appropriate boxes. None of them fit. I wasn’t fearful. I wasn’t anxious or depressed or angry. I added my own check box and wrote “grief” next to it. The nurse looked at my sheet and told me I couldn’t do that, so I crossed it off and said “Well, I will have to leave it blank. The only feeling I am struggling with is one you won’t allow me to recognize.” I wasn’t rude, just matter-of-fact. She considered my response for a moment. “You know, you have a really good point. I’m going to see about adding that one.” I hope they do. It may give others a word for what they are feeling.

I wasn’t prepared for grief. Maybe that’s because the nature of grief is that it is tied to unexpected loss. We can grieve over broken relationships. We can grieve over illness that leaves us without function or leaves us with unsightly scars. We can grieve because we missed an opportunity. We can grieve that our loved ones left this earth without the assurance of salvation. We can also choose to not grieve at all. That leaves even deeper scars and open wounds that won’t heal.

Someone, somewhere developed a model that puts grief into five stages. That may well be true. It certainly seems accurate. What I didn’t realize until lately is that grief is cyclical. We grieve awhile, maybe even moving through all five stages. Things get better and we move on. Then, suddenly, something triggers a memory and grief comes flooding back again. We repeat the process. Does that mean we didn’t grieve “properly” the first time? I don’t think so. I think this cycle is God-given. If we were to feel the full weight of our loss and have to process every bit of it at one time, we would be swallowed up and maybe lost. By working though our grief in layers, the wounds can heal and eventually stay healed, even though reminders and scars will remain–and often we want them to.

My grief over breast cancer resurfaced a couple nights ago. My sister-in-law (and dear friend) came over to take some pictures of me before surgery. I have a project in mind and wanted some photos that depict my thoughts and feelings about losing what has long been part of me–my breasts. I wanted tasteful, nuanced photos that I can keep for myself and my family as reminders of where we’ve been on this journey.

I never dreamed it would be so painful. She prayed for me before we started, and we both wept. During the photography, we laughed, and we wept again. The pictures are exactly what I wanted them to be, but I don’t look at them. It’s too hard. There will be a day that I can look back at these photos with appreciation, glad that we took them. Today is not that day.

This latest cycle of grief is winding down, and I’m gaining ground. I know there is much more to come, but I know that the One who gave me life and created my soul will not let me be overtaken.