Filled with Emptiness: Grieving After a Mastectomy or Hysterectomy

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This essay is based on the collective experiences of women I have counseled over the years.

Dear Sister,

You cannot see what I hold inside.

You cannot see the empty space that once held the force of creation, that held the possibilities of another child, that signaled the womanly transitions every month of togetherness, of separation.  

That empty space is the presence of an absence, a hole where a privileged organ once was. The place that nurtured and swelled with the growth of my children, that felt the kicks and jabs of my unborn child, that helped to push that child into the world, miraculously shutting down and healing itself in preparation for the next state of readiness.

Today, I stand with an emptiness and hurt that only I feel and others cannot see.

I am from that group of women who had to make a choice. A choice to remove that piece of myself to protect my future. I am that woman who said, take out my ovaries and uterus, remove my healthy breasts, take away that which makes me feel like a woman.

Today I wonder, am I less of a woman?  Am I less feminine without all of my parts?

I have lost the future that I had always imagined and dreamed. A larger family; all the children I will never have. When you see me, dear sister, do you see how I long for that mikvah experience that once was my right? It wasn’t always easy or even enjoyable, but it was mine and it was stolen from me. That very last time I went to the mikvah, after weeks of healing and recovering from surgery, I cried my way up those mikvah steps, knowing it would be the very last time I had this opportunity.

Oh sister, you shouldn’t know of the sadness when all those around me have their next baby and my arms are now holding my toddler. How I cry when I put away the baby clothes and wonder: what am I supposed to do with them? It hurts to take down the crib, with no possibilities of another infant to fill it.

You will see my tears at the Upsherin and Bar Mitzvah and smile at the idea that all mothers have tears as their babies grow. But my tears tell another story: the deepest ache I feel within, of the empty space that will always remain empty. And even if I felt like I was “done” with having children, somehow this choice felt like it was not really mine, that forces pushed me toward something that others don’t have to face. For that, I mourn.

Oh sisters, the ones with whom I chose to share my story, you are privileged ones. You sag with the weight of this knowledge and wonder what you can do to ease my sadness, to take away my pain. This may confuse you and go against the instinct to assure me, “At least you have a family,” or cajole me, “Just be positive!” Even the outlier comments sting — “You are so lucky you never have to get another period!” or, “Well, you never liked going to the mikvah anyway.”

Here’s what I need you to know: I am entitled to my pain.

Step away from the desire to take it from me. The sadness is part of my grieving, and I am rightly grieving what I have lost.  Stand beside me as I navigate this newness and challenge. Allow me my sadness. One day in the future, I may find my joy and my gratitude. But right now? I am sad. I am sometimes angry. I am so deeply disappointed. I wish things were different.

Sister, you don’t have to find words. Stop talking. Just show up.

Nurture me and my lost dreams. Soothe my heart and wounded belly.  Show up and sit. Don’t be afraid of my sadness or my pain. And, show up again and again until I can find my footing.  Remember me with sensitivity when you talk about babies and pregnancies. Acknowledge what I have been through with compassion, not pity.

Because dearest sister, I will survive this and surface once more.  And when I do, I would love to have you by my side; my sister, my friend.

Dvora Entin, LCSW developed and directs JFCS Ma’oz in Philadelphia, a unique initiative to engage the Orthodox community on mental health issues. With specialized training in maternal mental health and perinatal death, Dvora moderates phone support calls for K’nafayim and Yesh Tikvah organizations. She is the creator of    BLOOM, an award-winning program to engage the frum community on Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Dvora provides private counseling and consultation, and she presents nationally.  She resides in Philadelphia with her husband Isaac, and their children.