How I Channeled My Chronic Illness Grief Into Something Good


Nearly three years after my diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension, I still find myself being hit by a wave of grief. This wave crashes against me, only to bounce back to sea, and then return to me once more. The despair is heavy, and I am not sure people in their 20’s are meant to watch the death of their adulthood, or what they thought it would entail.

When I think of grief, I think of Rumi’s quote, “The wound is the place where Light enters you.” Pulmonary hypertension has left a massive hole in my life, and spirit – but it is up to me in how I handle that crater.

I think of my time in art school, and am reminded that a lot of my work was centered around my own grief. The last semester before I was supposed to move on to my thesis left me with a puncture. A five year relationship to someone I had been with since I was teenager had ended. At the time, I couldn’t imagine facing a bigger wound – foolish, I know. (Spoiler alert: some kind of sadistic form of Murphy’s Law would prove me wrong just a few years later!)

My grief motivated me to create something to work through my emotions. So, I cut up my dress from prom (dramatic, I know), and hand stitched every note my ex had ever written me to the dress. I don’t want to age myself here, but texting and Facebook wasn’t a real thing until my last year of high school. I had tried taking my grief and challenged myself to change it. I had taken my grief and turned it into something that not only I could feel, but hopefully others, too. After I created that sculpture, I felt lighter.

Art school taught me a lot about how grief can help you become an alchemist. I even went on to write my graduating thesis about how my frequent hospitalizations during childhood affected me, even as an adult. Being ill and hospitalized a lot as a child can potentially lead to depression, which is something I have felt the lingering effects of.

To reflect on my time spent ill or in the hospital, I created a bunch of portraits of my partner. The portraits were painted on sea foam backgrounds (a color found commonly on bed sheets, nurses uniforms, robes etc), and focused on sickly looking skin tons. Again, I was searching for a way to turn my grief into something else.

Since being diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, I have been searching for ways to turn my grief into the great alchemist. Grief is like fire, and you can let it burn you to ashes, or you can let it ignite something greater inside of you. I try to chase after the second option.

Upon my diagnosis, I started The PHight or Flight Project, which gave me the honor of connecting with a bunch of inspiring and unique people (who just happen to have pulmonary hypertension). The catalyst for this project was my grief. I hated hearing that my life was over after my diagnosis.

So, I found other people who had turned their grief into motivation for finding ways to live their version of their own best life, even after a diagnosis. Some have been on oxygen for nearly 40 years and have found hobbies like gardening, while others have been able to travel across the world. It was encouraging to me to hear their stories, and it felt amazing to receive e-mails from newly diagnosis patients in the ICU who had found my little blog.

My grief has pushed me into creating more art (when time permits), working from home, buying more records, learning new musical instruments – and even writing.

Although challenging, I try to use my grief as alchemy. I try to hold that flame to my creativity fuel, and let it ignite. I also try to use it as a way to better appreciate everything around me. Sometimes I will cry on the first peaceful snow fall of the year, not because I am sad, but because of the peace it gives me.

Grief has motivated me to try and cherish my loved ones a little more. It has also given me a greater sense of empathy that I can feel for others, and has driven me to better accept people for who they truly are.

The cracks and craters have consumed much of me, but I try to remember that those holes are where the light gets in. And anywhere that light can reach can allow for something beautiful for grow.

Spring is such a wonderful reminder that plants can play dead for nearly an entire year, only to bloom new life in the spring. Find places to plant new seeds within you. Allow the light to hit the spots that grief has opened within you, and become your own alchemist.

You can follow Serena’s journey at Worship and Tribute.

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Thinkstock Image By: Zulfiska

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