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Suffering and loss teach many lessons

By Paul Paproski, OSB

06/24/2015

My sister Gwen was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. The diagnosis was a shock — she was in very good health and lived a healthy lifestyle. A model cancer patient, Gwen, 45, faced her life-threatening illness with a positive attitude. She was determined to be strong and optimistic. She had a zeal for life and loved her husband and two children dearly. They, in turn, gave her tremendous love and support.

Our family rejoiced when we learned, after months of chemotherapy and radiation, that Gwen was diagnosed cancer free. We were sure this dark stage of her life was over. Our hopes were dashed three years later when we learned the cancer returned and it was aggressive. The treatments resumed again, only this time they were much stronger.

Gwen didn’t make it. She died May 19, five years following her first diagnosis. She was 50 years old. Her death came only weeks before her daughter graduated from high school. We were stunned to learn in her final two weeks of life that she had lost her battle. Gwen’s optimism throughout her ordeal led us to believe she had many years left. She often expressed her readiness to return to work and prepare for her daughter’s high school graduation. She looked forward to continuing with her hobbies, volunteer work and doing some travelling.

Some things come to mind when I think about my visits with Gwen in Pasqua Hospital in Regina and at her home:

I cannot imagine the pain felt by cancer patients, whether physically or emotionally.

Cancer affects everyone. The cancer patient does not suffer alone. Family and friends feel pain too. I cannot imagine what other family and friends went through during this long ordeal. I know it was not easy for me.

Words are powerful and can be very helpful. It meant a lot to hear people say they are so sorry for Gwen and what our family was going through, and that they can’t image how we feel. It meant a lot to hear people say they are praying for us.

Life is fragile. Cancer attacks people of all ages and backgrounds, even the healthy and those who live healthy lifestyles. And when cancer is defeated, it comes back.
Cancer brings families closer together and challenges them to discern what really matters.

The loss of a loved one to cancer increases empathy for those who have undergone similar ordeals.

The impersonal and institutional nature of city hospitals makes them difficult settings for patients, especially for persons who are private and sensitive.

The donations of friends and service clubs were a tremendous boost to morale.

Life is a process of letting go. We are always letting go of things: our youth, our dreams, our friendships, our health, our loved ones. The ability to let go and let God brings acceptance and peace. Holding onto things creates tension, resentment and anger.

The suffering and death of a loved one tests our trust in a benevolent, loving God.

The death of a love one, particularly a loved one who died too soon, changes everything. The world is not the same. The connection to prayer, the cross and the eucharist is different. Scripture speaks differently.

There is “tension” between the feeling of joy in knowing that a loved one is with our Lord, and the sadness felt through missing her terribly.

Paproski is a priest and Benedictine monk of St. Peter’s Abbey. His sister Gwen is survived by her parents, three siblings, her husband and two children.