Are You Grieving an Illness? It's OK to Repeat the Stages of Grief.
Most people think of grieving processes as something that follows the death of a loved one, but there are lots of other reasons to grieve. Grief can be a helpful tool when facing any sort of major life change in which your former life is gone, and you need to adjust to your new reality. Most of the time these are bad changes like the death of a loved one or a diagnosis with chronic illness, but I also think that grief can be used to adjust to good changes too, since even good changes can alter your life forever. The most common description of a grief process is a five step model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When I was diagnosed with a chronic, incurable illness I had already been sick for several years. I thought I had already adjusted to that, but despite my often pessimistic attitude, I had been holding on to hope that if I was diagnosed then I could be cured. Once I was diagnosed I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to get better. This started a grief process that is complicated by the fact that nothing is absolute. For instance, I can still garden a little but I can’t garden like I used to, I can still work part-time but it is very part-time, there are treatments for my symptoms but there is no cure.
This lack of finality or certainty complicates grieving primarily because I regularly have to decide what things to accept and what things not to accept. A large part of this grief is accepting the unpredictability of my symptoms, but in the day-to-day grind where do I draw the line? As an example, I’ve often realized that something I thought was normal is actually a symptom. At that point I have to decide if I should just live with that symptom or seek treatment for it. If I seek treatment for it I have to grapple with the fact that it might not help, or it might have very bad side effects, or even that it could be a sign of a previously undiagnosed condition. I have to make choices like this on a pretty regular basis. All of these stages of decision making result in a complicated process with layers of grief.
The current result of all of this is that I see in my own life is a cyclical grief pattern. At my best I have a generally fighting attitude in which I am determined to find out how healthy I can be and live at that level. Then, eventually, I get tired. Physically tired from trying so hard and pushing my boundaries, but also emotionally tired from the constant mental battle. After that I get depressed. Eventually I find ways to break out of the depression and then the whole things starts again. Fight, tired, depressed…fight, tired, depressed…
As with all complicated grief processes, and I’d guess most uncomplicated grief processes as well, there is no clean cut five step program and then you’re done. It doesn’t work that way, and that’s OK. It’s OK to repeat steps, it’s OK to have to keep working on this, it’s OK when you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere. You’re doing a good job.
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