The Ongoing Process of Grief When You Have a Chronic Illness
Being chronically ill can often mean existing in a continual state of grieving.
You grieve for the person you once were.
You grieve for the loved ones who have left you because it is all “too hard.”
You grieve for the job you lost, the study you had to give up, the volunteer work you devoted yourself to.
You grieve for the parties you are no longer invited to, the weddings, funerals and functions you cannot attend. Loved ones live and die while you watch from your bed.
If you have had surgeries, you may grieve for your body, the parts you have lost and the damage done to an already fragile being.
You grieve for the person who did not know trauma, did not know pain and did not know that some people spend their whole lives in a perpetual state of sickness they can do nothing about.
Many of us have difficulty handling grief. We might feel discomfited by a display of “negative” emotions in a society that praises positivity above all, even to the point of repression and falsity. No one wants to be confronted with a reminder of their own morbidity and mortality, to be made aware that the world is not a safe place.
Those experiencing grief – not only the chronically ill, but those who have lost loved ones or experienced other trauma in their lives – will know what I mean. The looks you get when you admit you are not, in fact, doing fine. The hasty changing of subjects when your feelings come to the fore or the general shuffling of feet and looks of discomfit when you are honest about your life. “Get over it,” is a not-uncommonly heard phrase. “Move on.”
Given that nearly every single person will experience grief in their lives, this kind of insensitivity seems inexcusable. Perhaps the media is to blame – as a society, we do not discuss grief well (or chronic illness, for that matter). In a world that prefers the black and white – person gets sick, they get better, they are happy, the end – there is no room for shades of grey, for those who have to grapple with their bodies and emotions day after day and manage an unwieldy tangle into some kind of life.
It’s time we start acknowledging that grief is a process that can take a lifetime. That it is OK to not be OK. That being chronically ill can take a significant mental and emotional toll, and that we might grieve not only over our illnesses, but for those who have left us because of them.
No one likes loss – especially not those who are in the process of grieving themselves. We may have no choice, but you do. If someone you love is sick, traumatized or otherwise grieving, you have a choice. You can run away and pretend like if you just shut your eyes tight enough, the terrible things of this world may pass you by, like so many bogeymen in the night.
Or, you can embrace the world, and by extension your loved ones, in all shades of grey – happy, grieving, sick, sometimes fine, sometimes not. Reaching out a hand of support – sending a text message, making a call, asking “how are you?” – takes only an instant, but makes an indelible impact. If you open your heart to someone who needs you, you may well find that both of your lives have been enriched.
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Thinkstock photo via tatyana_tomsickova.