Grief is most often defined as the emotional response to a loss, particularly the loss of a loved one. Almost everyone can imagine how it feels for someone who is experiencing this kind of grief. We all have people in our lives who we love and couldn’t imagine living without.
What we often don’t talk about is grieving the loss of yourself. We don’t tell someone who has experienced the loss of a parent to “calm down” when their grief is presenting as anger. We don’t tell them that they will feel better if they “just try harder.” We don’t ask them what they could have done differently to have prevented their loss. Instead we comfort them, hold them, talk to them. We validate their feelings. Of course they feel this way, how could they not?
When our lives are forever changed from the consequences of living with chronic illness, or a mental health issue, we experience loss of a different kind. The effect it has on our relationships with loved ones, our social lives and careers can be devastating. So why then do we not expect to be comforted, held and understood when we are grieving the loss of our former-self? Why does no one validate our feelings? Often, this grief is compounded by guilt for even feeling this way at all.
The stages of grief are easily understood from the perspective of grieving the loss of someone else. They are much more confusing and harder to navigate when the grief is for ourselves. It’s important to note that like anything in life, grief isn’t a linear process. One may bounce from stage to stage, staying in one longer than the other, experiencing them all or just a few. But, by understanding and recognizing how you, or someone you know, may be experiencing these stages, we can learn to navigate this silent issue together.
This step can feel overwhelming. You’ve been given information about yourself that in most cases shatters your self-image and shakes the foundation you’ve laid your life upon. It can be a lot to take in so to protect itself, the brain turns off. Essentially, if it doesn’t feel it then it doesn’t have to deal with it. Denial can come in the form of looking for other diagnoses. For myself, I didn’t have anxiety because I couldn’t comprehend how to fix it. I searched for an actual, physical diagnosis for which there was easy treatment so that I could get back to my normal life.
As denial wains, you begin to feel the feelings that may have been suppressed in the denial stage. These feelings come bubbling to the surface, sometimes with a vengeance. Anger often gives us something or someone else to focus on. Why would God let this happen to me? Why aren’t my friends supporting me more? Sometimes, it acts as an explosive outlet for pent up emotion and you find yourself raging uncontrollably. Be kind to yourself in this stage.
Here you may be analyzing every aspect of your diagnosis and how you could have prevented it. This is where guilt kicks into high gear. You’ll most likely put the entire burden of your illness on yourself and tell yourself it’s your fault. A lot of these sentences will start with “what if” and “if only.” What if I had put more focus on my physical health? What if I had seen the signs sooner, had reached out for help sooner? If only this hadn’t happened my life would be better.
Once we realize we can’t go back in time and fix the “what ifs”, we are confronted with the now and our present condition. We may dwell on the effects our illness has had on our life. You’ve denied it, been angry about it and even tried bargaining with it; it feels as if you have no control left. A dark cloud lowers itself on you and alters your view of yourself and others. Our friends don’t like us anymore, why would they? Our loved ones resent us; our children deserve better. Why bother anymore? It feels as though you will be in this stage forever.
Slowly, as we drag ourselves through the mud of despair, the steps get a little easier to make. Because while we’ve been grieving, we have also been living and learning. It may have been a messy journey, but it’s not supposed to be pretty. Over time you’ve taken the old, broken pieces and reshaped, repainted and reconditioned them into something new. You’ve been navigating the new obstacles and emotions with this new person the entire time. You’ll start growing and learning to navigate life with the diagnosis, not against it.
If you are supporting a loved one with a mental health or chronic illness diagnosis remember, it is a sad, confusing and frustrating experience to lose who we imagine ourselves to be. Be patient and be kind.
If you are living with a mental health or chronic illness diagnosis, I know it’s scary to think of moving toward the future as someone you essentially do not know, but it’s freeing to know that you can because you are already doing it.
Show yourself compassion and empathy. You are still here. I promise. You’re just packaged differently and I think it’s beautiful.
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Author: Amber Mugridge