Henry Bantjez (M Psych)
MOM was supposed to go first. After two years of bravely fighting breast cancer, my dad, heroically by her side, believed that all would be well, and just as hope surfaced like a desperate breath, it spread to her lungs. More cancer. More tears.
You see, dad was the strong one. The healthy bull. He was getting plans together to build mom a home with an elevator. She had become too weak for stairs. I still keep those plans in a drawer. Maybe one day I will build that house. He was the quiet one. He loved her with all his heart.
The only retired couple in their neighbourhood who held hands when they walked Ringo. The dog has become my most-prized inheritance. But dad kept his emotions locked. Riana, a supportive neighbour told me that the day they first found the lump, he walked over, white in the face, and said: “My wife has cancer.” That is as much as he uttered on the topic. But his body told a different story.
It was a Friday. I was invited over for a curry and a glass of wine to celebrate my mom’s health after what we thought was her last bout of chemotherapy. He just shook his head when I met him at the gate. I could hear her crying from her bedroom. “We will get through this,” I lied. The next morning I arrived at their home before the ambulance. Dad had a stroke.
He was paralysed. But compos mentis. Mom, feet swollen, belligerent to move, I held her upright. She felt so small against me. It was cold that night. We laid candles in heart shapes in the street outside his hospital room with the compassionate help of a friend, as we were not allowed to visit due to Covid-regulations.
A vigil for dad. Passers-by cried for us. Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight playing loudly from my Bluetooth speaker was what made dad’s finger lift. An acknowledgement.
Nurse Maria said that every time we called, her holding the handset to his ear, it was as if life jumped into his eyes like a guest. It was the bravest phone call I had ever made when I decided to speak to him alone two weeks later.
“If you wanted to keep on fighting,” I said, “I will respect and support you. But if you feel that you are tired. I salute you. I honour you. I respect you. I love you. Go if you need to.” I could hear nurse Maria crying as she tried to keep the phone balanced against his ear, her hand shaking. “Dad”, I asked, “just give me a sign that you understood me.” He started breathing loudly through his oxygen mask.
Mom had this thing. She did not get out of bed until he brought her a glass of warm water with lemon and cayenne pepper. A job I took over. “Where is my water,” I heard her say when I started playing Lawdy, Miss Clawdy by Elvis that morning.
“Come on out,”,I said. Still in her nighty, her body frail but masked by an infectious smile, she said: “And now?” I held her in my arms and said, “Let’s dance Mommy. Let’s just be happy.”She held me tight and swayed to the rhythm. When the song ended, I said: “He died.” Her legs caved in and I carried her to a couch where she cried and prayed at the same time. Her everything. Her love. Her pillar. Gone. Her soul filled with pain. Lonesome.
It was exactly two months and a day later that mom died. Not from cancer but a broken heart. My whole family gone. Two funerals. Two brave elegies.
In the bargaining stage of my grief, I found myself creating a lot of “what ifs” and “if only’s” – A line of defence against the emotions of grief. It helped to delay my confusion and hurt. But this stage proved to be helpful when I started bargaining with myself – seeking my inner strength and confidence.
I focused on statements (not feelings) that I was not defined by what had happened and that I will (and I did) rise again no matter what. That true existential belief in yourself can generate more energy needed to light up an entire city. It was Anna Freud who said: “I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time.”
I created post-traumatic wisdom instead of stress. I realised that a safe place was inside me and that I would use that pain and transform it into power to help others. I was not suddenly free of stress and depression, but the way I carried it, with wisdom and the ability to live with my pain, embrace it, and not fear it. I awakened to it.
Pain can push you. But it can also force you into a vision that is bigger than pain. Once I had that vision, I walked in the direction of my purpose, instead of being stuck, something those closest to me could not comprehend.
Of course, I had challenges, my friends and family were waiting for me to crack, but I chose not to be overwhelmed by what had happened but to be unconditionally open to it. To see the blessings. I had the key to my happiness in my pocket. I transformed my pain into purpose.
My empathy and connection to people allow me to be who I am. I learn from it every day. I do not permit the pain to hide. If it surfaces, I talk to it, then I let it be. Growing up I thought I had to be strong. Always. No tear shedding. But the death of my family made me realise that my strength lies within my vulnerability.
Losses are there to wake you up. I have learnt to appreciate living in the moment. And I ask that you do the same. Do this one thing. Keep a gratitude journal. Everyday list five things that you are grateful for. That is how you cultivate your mindfulness. You are reframing your thoughts. You are teaching your brain to re-experience joy.
If you concentrate on what you don’t have you will never have enough. There is no reality in life. Only perception. Awareness. Knowing. Mindfulness. This means that when you practise mindfulness, you choose very carefully how you react to your traumas in life. That is when you alter your perceptions.
Loss and grief are very individualised. We all experience it quite differently, but the secret is to search for your inner-strength and when you find it, never let go.
*Henry Bantjez is a cognitive behavioural therapist from Cape Town and counsels individuals and large corporates