“Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss or change of any kind.”
This definition by the Grief Recovery Method helps us to understand that grief is an appropriate reaction to any loss. When we think of grieving, we know that it happens after a death of a loved one, and perhaps after a divorce or breakup.
In the next few columns, I’ll be addressing some of the different kinds of losses that cause grief, and how they affect us personally, and in our relationships. I invite you to email me with any questions or topics that you would like to see covered in upcoming columns.
Today, I’d like to concentrate on the grief surrounding chronic illness and injury. The ongoing losses that occur under these conditions including looking backwards with regret to see what the illness has taken away, and looking forward, to an uncertain future. These conditions apply to aging and mental health challenges as well.
These are all enormous topics of great depth and complexity, and for the purpose of this column I will just be able to touch on a few points.
Experiencing chronic illness means accumulating a myriad of losses. The width and depth of your losses depend on the severity of your illness and the limitations it causes you. The loss of good health starts a flood of secondary losses. From a column in Social Work Today, Mila Tecala of the Centre for Loss and Grief in Washington, DC, explains that “depending on the nature of the illness, the losses may include comfort, sexual function, career, income, self-efficacy, freedom, cognitive function, intimacy, pride, joy, self-esteem, self-control, independence, mental health, hope, dignity and certainty. In the most extreme cases, one illness may bring about all of these losses, sometimes over and over again.”
The grief surrounding these losses may go unrecognized, not only by the person with the illness, but by their loved ones as well. There is such pressure to be “fine,” and the urge not to burden the people who love you by expressing your valid grief. This can have additional severe consequences for your overall health and well being. Tecala goes on to say “because chronic illness can strip away many of the characteristics that form identity at the same time it causes disability and the loss of livelihood, the totality of the losses is potentially enormous. Since these losses aren’t tied to one event but are multiple and repetitive, the ill person may live with perpetual grief, known as chronic sorrow or sadness.”
The ripple effect of chronic illness on family members and loved ones can be profound, as they realize that their loved one’s future is changed, and they may not be able to participate or contribute as they once did. Family members and partners face having to be a caregiver to their loved one experiencing the chronic illness, which also changes their lives, and their hopes and dreams as well. This is a complicated mix of emotions, and feelings of loss, guilt, resentment, anger, fear and grief that needs to be expressed.
In many cases people with chronic illness may not realize that they are experiencing manifestations of grief. Health care providers who are concentrating on treatment may also be unaware, or not have the time or resources to help. There is still stigma attached to seeking help and support, so many people feel isolated in their losses and their grief.
Friends and family can be incredibly supportive; however, they may not know how to help, or they may be so overwhelmed that they do not have the strength, time, or ability to know what to do. They are also grieving along with the person experiencing the illness, just in different ways and depths.
When someone who is living with chronic illness of any kind reaches out to you for support — which is incredibly difficult to do — be very careful not to be dismissive, or invalidate their concerns. For example, saying “it could be worse,” or “you look fine,” are statements that invalidate a person’s emotional suffering. Listening, witnessing, and offering empathy is a huge gift, as I have stated many times. By doing this, you are offering a place for unloading their burden and opening up room for a little joy, if only for a time.
It’s hard to ask for help. People do not want to be a burden, and they can become isolated, which creates a never-ending loop of more misery. If a loved one is living with chronic illness, make sure you reach out and address the isolation. Do not forget about the caregivers, and their grief and isolation as well. Give them a break, and support. If you are living with chronic illness, try to reach out, become informed about grief surrounding chronic illness and above all, be compassionate with yourself.
Hilary Scott is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® and a Certified Loss and Grief Support®. Contact her online at Healing the Loss on Facebook or at www.healingtheloss.com.