Grieving the Person I Was Before Chronic Illness

Sitting at the end of my bed, it suddenly thumps me across the chest like a ton of bricks. My lip trembles, I can feel the lump in my throat and I have to stop myself before the tears flow. I’m struggling to put on my socks and quickly I’m reminded that my life is not and never will be what it used to be. It took me a while to grieve the loss of my former self, then even longer to realize that was what I was doing. Grieving.

And just like grief, no matter how much time helps you heal, you are never truly done grieving. I have lost loved ones over the years, people very special to me, and I think about them every day. Now that years have passed, it doesn’t hurt as much to remember them, to think about them and the beautiful memories I shared with them. Still, I am sometimes caught off-guard. I’ll see my nana’s favorite sweets in the shop and go to pick them up, and then it strikes me like a lightning bolt. My nana is not here anymore. That’s when it aches the most — when just for a tiny second you forget that loss.

It is a similar process with my condition. Now that I have dealt with it for nearly 10 years, it has become easier to accept my limitations, but every once in a while I long for what I had. I forget I have limitations and as soon as I remember the things I can’t do… That ‘s when the lump hits my throat and my eyes water because it’s that very real and raw pain all over again. It’s the first time hearing the news, it’s the hurt and the confusion all once more and it’s heartbreaking.

It is a different kind of grief. It almost feels like a selfish one but it is there and I think most people with chronic illness face it. We go through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but it tends to be a never-ending cycle, just as illness is.

All stages occur in quick succession: you deny your illness, pushing yourself to your absolute limit, and then you feel such anger when you struggle to keep up with the others or perform simple tasks. Next comes the bargaining: if I just got healthier, exercised more, ate less crap, meditated more…. But no matter what you do, your illnesses won’t be gone. The realization of that brings on the depression, not feeling good enough, feeling useless and helpless until finally and thankfully you make it full circle to acceptance again. Each time I go through the cycle, I make it to acceptance more quickly and it lasts longer. This is not to say I am happy with my illness, but I’m fine with it. It is part of me now and, for the most part, I accept that — the same way that while I miss my grandmother with all my heart, I have come to terms with her loss.

When I think of my grandmother and how much I miss her, I also think of how happy I was to know her in the first place, to have been loved by her and have wonderful memories no one can take away from me. When I think of my rheumatoid arthritis, I have to see the positives in it, too. I have more than I have lost. My illness has changed me, but it has not reduced me. It has made me more empathic to others, made me stronger, made me a fighter and most importantly, it has shown me just how much my family and friends love me.

Sometimes I will grieve my old body and grieve the normal, pain-free life I could have had. But for the most part, I will be out there making the most of what I have got — which, thinking about it, is more than enough.

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