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Grieving an Old Life: Coping with Chronic Illness, Disease, and Pain

By Sarah Thompson, PPC

You know that feeling when you wake up, and all of a sudden you don’t feel right? Perhaps it’s finally admitting to yourself that you “might be sick,” then push those thoughts away and continue your everyday activities. Afterall, it’s probably nothing anyway. You may even forget about it for a little while, until the symptoms become a little more persistent. “It’s nothing serious” we often tell ourselves. “There’s too much to do, I CANNOT get sick right now.” Until the symptoms become too hard to ignore, and we make that appointment.

Appointments, testing, awaiting results, and a new diagnosis; then the process of grief often begins. It’s common to remember what it was like before the symptoms began. Even if it was just a few days ago, when you could breathe through your nose, and now suddenly you can’t. Something so little taken for granted, and now it’s hard to breathe. Often times, there is a cultural meaning that goes along with being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or disease. In living this, the individual is not only forced to deal with physical symptoms of the illness, but also the meanings associated with the diagnosis. Life threatening illnesses threaten our plans for the future. We are suddenly confronted with our mortality, often exposing our anxiety about being separated or taken from everything we love, our fear of pain, and the imagined horror of dying.

The grieving process begins, and often this starts with denial and isolation. When presented with the idea that this illness/disease is not going away, it is natural to reject the idea that it could be true. In turn, we may isolate ourselves to avoid reminders of the truth. This may look like staying in the house more often or isolating to a single room, and thinking of how only a week ago, a month ago, a year ago …how different things were. It still doesn’t feel completely true. When it is no longer possible to live in denial, it is common to become frustrated and angry. We might feel like something extremely unfair has happened to us and wonder what we did to deserve it. “I’m a good person, why is this happening to me?” Which then quickly can turn into bargaining. “Maybe if I…” endless possibilities of things we could do different to change the outcome. When reality hits us that this is real life, and there’s not much we can do to change it, depression sets in. This stage often lasts the longest. Eventually, the individual may come to terms with their new altered life and adjustments. Accepting the loss does not necessarily mean the person is no longer grieving. Waves of grief can be triggered by reminders long after it has happened and long after the person has “accepted” it. These waves may also trigger a crossover into any of the other four stages of grief.

Imagine adjusting to a new life, with new rules, new aches and pains that will never go away. Being tethered to an oxygen machine for the rest of your life when you were used to going on hikes with your friends. Imagine having to use a feeding tube rather than being able to eat your favorite foods ever again. An endless amount of “never again”. Grief can be experienced in many different reasons in life, aside from losing a loved one. The idea of grieving a life one used to have is common. Imagine how jarring it can be to have been a generally healthy individual and suddenly have every aspect of your life altered in some way or another by a chronic illness or disease?

So where do you even begin? One of the first steps is to become aware of where you are in your grieving process. Learning about the different stages of grief, and how they may look in your life. While some people identify with Kubler-Ross’ traditional five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance; not everyone does. Some people go through the stages in a different order, and some will revisit stages. Some may not notice a stage at all. Everyone’s grieving process is different, and that is okay. Remember to be patient with yourself through the process, because grief affects everyone differently. In addition to the chronic illness/pain, there are often symptoms of grief that occur as well, such as shock, disbelief, feeling numb, guilt, regret, shame, anxiety, fear, nausea, weight loss, night sweats, heart palpitations, etc.

Things to keep in mind while coping with chronic illness/ pain/ disease:

Manage your stress. Stress has been known to cause flare ups in certain illnesses. Being aware of the stress in one’s life and how to handle it can make a big difference in coping with chronic illnesses. Remembering what things you are in control of in your life is important.

Self-monitor symptoms and severity. Being informed about your health and keeping track of symptoms/ severity and being an active participant in your own health can make quite a difference.

Communicate. A big part of coping with grief in general is communicating with others about what you are going through. Opening up about your thoughts, feelings, and needs. Reaching out to friends, family, or even a therapist.

Please don’t think you have to go through grief alone. Our team at High Country Behavioral Health is always here to help.


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Sarah Thompson, LPC

About the author

Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson is a professional counselor at HCBH in Evanston, WY. She believes in a holistic approach to healing, while also using her understanding of the enneagram, Reiki healing, and reflexology. Sarah offers her clients a space to find peace, serenity, new-found insights, and a deeper connection to self and source. 

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