Grief and Chronic Illness


Loss is a terrible thing. In life, we will have moments of loss that are often viewed as normal, many sometimes even so unavoidable they are expected and inevitable, but they still shake us so to our core we’re sometimes little able to function afterward. In our culture we don’t prepare for losses, particularly deaths, but wait for them to come, take us by surprise and knock the wind out of us.
Grief creates a very tangible, visceral pain. It literally hurts in our bodies. A study done recently showed that pain medication eases the psychological pain of social rejection.* Social rejection causes one to grieve immensely, and on a long-term, or chronic, scale. It seems that our grief for painful occurrences in life are just as painfully tangible as an upset stomach, a headache, and the malaise that many people feel while grieving.
There are two types of grief experienced in life. The acute, an occurrence that prevails with suddenness and quickly changes the topography of our lives, such as the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, the death of a beloved pet, the sudden death of a beloved person, etc. These things occur swiftly, change our lives, but the primary event is over when it’s over and given time, we may adjust to our new lives with this change in it. We grieve strongly and terribly, mourn what or who we’ve lost, then we pick up the pieces and move on.
The second type of grief is chronic grief, and occurs when our losses are continual issues in our lives, when the things that we grieve are long-term, and ever changing, such as a chronic illness, the death of a loved one for which we cannot (or will not let ourselves) heal, chronic illness of a loved one, or news of the impending death of a loved one or beloved pet for which there is no definite time constraint (maybe a month, a year, or 10 years, we don’t know, but they’ve definitely got a terminal illness such as cancer that is incurable and will eventually kill them). Chronic grief is a terrible thing. Acute grief is expected, and accepted. One is supposed to hurt when they’ve suffered a loss. But people have difficulty identifying with the long-term pain associated with the chronic, of any sort. Chronic physical pain is beyond comprehension for many people. How can any person hurt all day every day? It must be something made up, exaggerated, stated excessively, because such a life cannot be feasible. Chronic psychological pain is just as difficult to grasp. How does one continually not deal with an issue or problem? How does one continue to hurt?
Truly, people can only suffer so much. Chronic pain of any sort tends to numb us. People with chronic physical pain often have very high pain tolerances. But also, they can have very low pain tolerances, as if their capacity for experiencing pain has been used up, and one more thing added to the list is enough to bring them to tears. Terrible psychological pain can cause the same effects. Maybe a person is just holding it together dealing with their various chronic and/or acute griefs, and that one more thing, like dropping a pizza cooked fresh out of the oven, and they burst into tears like their whole world has come unraveled.
Many of us with chronic illnesses deal with both chronic physical pain and chronic grief. We mourn the many things we’ve lost in our lives due to the illnesses that we struggle with every day. Imagine waking up one day and learning that not only are you going to suffer every day for the rest of your life, but you’re slowly going to lose your career, independence, self-sufficiency, hobbies, friends, mobility, the respect of those around you, perhaps your memory, and each day will be more difficult, more of a struggle to hold onto those few things you still have, and each day it’s possible that you’ll wake to find that you’ve lost something else, and you still hurt, everything still hurts.
I’m tired of being treated like a child when I become frustrated for the things I’ve lost. I’m tired of being told that it’s simply depression that causing me to grieve the things I’ve lost when it’s FAR more complicated than that. I’m tired of being looked at with pity, as if my mind is gone, when it’s really not me who has the problem understanding the situation. I’m tired of trying to justify my emotions to others.
Every person has a right, and even a need, to grieve their losses. If or when that grief becomes out of proportion to the loss there may be need for intervention. I had worked with people who continued to mourn the loss of a child so strongly that it was a disruptive force in every aspect of their lives 20 years after the fact. This is no longer healthy grieving, but obsession. I understand full well how grief can be destructive rather than palliative, but when each day presents a fresh wound, are we not entitled to our time to let it heal? 



8 thoughts on “Grief and Chronic Illness

  1. Camp Other

    This is brilliant. I can relate to a lot of what you’ve written here, and have gone back to re-read it because parts of it struck me strongly.
    This paragraph in particular:
    “I’m tired of being treated like a child when I become frustrated for the things I’ve lost. I’m tired of being told that it’s simply depression that causing me to grieve the things I’ve lost when it’s FAR more complicated than that. I’m tired of being looked at with pity, as if my mind is gone, when it’s really not me who has the problem understanding the situation. I’m tired of trying to justify my emotions to others.”
    That and the seemingly disproportionate grief over dropping a pizza. I can relate.
    Losing my health led to a cascade of losses from there – my job, my income, my home, many friends, some family members, a sense of security, opportunities I could never take advantage of, and the projected loss of future opportunities as well.
    When one setback and loss dogpiles on top of another, how can you tell the difference between normal grieving and obsession? I just add to the list of things to grieve and the weight of it on my shoulders becomes heavy, indeed. I had my own personal losses due to illness – but now I think one more source of external grief (another death in the family, watching someone else close to me experience great loss, etc) – may just be more than I can take.
    There comes a point where some good things, some positive gains have to enter one’s life or much of it seems pointless. (Yes, this is depression talking. I am aware it is adding to the stack.)

    • The way to determine whether you’re experiencing normal, healthy grieving or obsession is basically to check yourself. Are you doing everything you can possibly do to promote healing and move forward? Are you holding yourself back in any way, holding onto pain, reopening old psychological wounds? Only you can know that for sure, but you have to be brutally honest with yourself. And by that I don’t mean to be cruel to yourself! Be kind and gentle, as if you were talking to your most beloved friend, but also 100% honest. If you don’t feel that you’re making every effort to make forward strides in your recovery, then figure out what you need to do to make that happen.
      You mention that we need positive events to counterbalance the negative events in our lives, and this is true, but instead of waiting for the universe to make those positive things happen we really need to be free agents and make positive things happen for ourselves. They can be ever so small things, but making happiness for ourselves, or recognizing it and enjoying it when it happens, is one of the most important things we can learn to do in life. We have very little control in life, in so much as we we can’t change people, can’t stop events, etc, but what we definitely CAN control is our reactions, both internal and external, to events in our lives, both positive and negative. So, if something good DOES happen, enjoy it! And if it doesn’t, do something that you DO enjoy! Seek out people, experiences, thoughts, anything that makes you happy. Find meaning in the things that happen to you and around you. I’m not going to feed you a line about how everything happens for a reason, but you can find meaning in the things that occur, no matter how negative. Every event in life is an opportunity; a change of perspective, a lesson learned, renewed strength to assist someone through a personal crisis, etc.
      I know none of these things are easy. I really DID drop a pizza and burst into tears! Hehe But, I’m working very hard to do these things with my life as well. To take control, create happiness, and exploit the opportunity to find meaning. When you make the decision that things feel pointless it gets all too easy to just give up and be buffeted about by all these negative events that happen to you. Always remember, you DO have choices, and you can make things better. It may be slow going, it may take a very long time, but some progress is better than none. 😉
      I hope this helps a bit. I know life is hard, and some of us were definitely dealt a crappy hand, but we still have some control. If you haven’t heard of mindfulness meditation you should look it up and give it a try. I do hope you start feeling better soon, and don’t you give up hope either! As long as you live there’s always an opportunity to make things better.

  2. Cozette Marie

    I’m one of the BRAIN DEAD WALKING. I lost too much in a short period of time. One little doggie, second little doggie, best friend/my best worker for 18 years, then one week later our only child/daughter is in a slip & fall injury, then the worse thing, after saying she was ok, 3 mths later, she went to sleep, never woke up. I went thru the first year of anger, 2nd & now year 3, I can’t even function. Dr put me on antidepressants. They didn’t work. I’m 57 feeling like 100. Luckily, my husband of over 34 years, tries his best to take care of me, someways, he understands, but the one problem he doesn’t understand, I’ve lost my being, my creativity. I was at a 360, now running at 90. When you get that knock on the door @ 6am. Told the horrific news, that no parent wants to hear, I wouldn’t wish that moment on a soul. She hadn’t married, and had no children. Only her kitties and rabbit. I know, in my spirit, that she’s in peace, and I know I’ll be with her again. I’m just so lost/separation anxiety, that’s what I call my problem. I hope & pray that I’ll get better. Right now, I’m getting mentally & physically worse day by day. I started out being born in a crappy situation, pulled myself up by the bootstraps, made a great life for myself, of course with my husband, & baby girl. One day up, with a blink of an eye, all’s gone with the wind. Plus we’re living in a place, no family, no friends, nobody we can trust. It’s probably a good thing, I’m 1700 miles from her grave……
    Thanks for your article,
    It’s good to know somebody realizes chronic grief/illness, lost my swing/mind or I love in DEADBRAINWALKINKING

    • Well, the “dead brain walking” mainly refers to my MS and the amount of brain damage that has or will accrue due to that illness, but I can see how it might apply to grieving and depression. One can only handle so many significant losses and so much pain before become deadened or apathetic, or even just feeling very negative emotions such as anger, sadness and pessimism with little ability to experience positive emotions with positive experiences or stimuli.
      I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve suffered so many significant losses in such a short amount of time. I do understand how difficult it is to see a light at the end of the tunnel under such conditions, but please believe me that things can and will get better. Time is a great healer, but you have to want and accept the healing as it occurs. Sometimes it’s easier to not let the wounds heal, and often we feel we’re doing a disservice to those we’ve lost by not maintaining acute and disruptive grief in their name, as if the significance of their loss must be matched by equally significant sorrow to do them justice. But that’s just not the way the world works. Time, and our lives, do not stop for our grief. We have to figure out a way to integrate the grief into our newly altered lives, and the best way to honor one’s memory is not to think of them always with sorrow and tears, but to eventually heal enough to hold their memory in our hearts with fondness, joy, and positive reminiscence. It is definitely a long, painful, arduous journey to reach that place, but it can certainly be done if it is a wanted goal.
      As far as the psych meds are concerned, meds for depression, especially depression that is spurned by events such as loss and grief and not as much by genetic predisposition, are often based on trial and error. Some meds, or combinations of meds, work great for some people and not so well for others. If you were prescribed your medication by a general practitioner/primary care doctor, PLEASE go see a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. They understand these medications much better, they are specialists. If you had GI trouble you’d see a GI doc. If you had eye trouble you’d see an Ophthalmologist. If you had heart trouble you definitely wouldn’t see a Neurologist for it. See what I’m saying? So please go see someone who specializes in treating mood disorders. In that same vein, if you haven’t already, a counselor may be able to help you process the great volume of negative emotions that have been thrown at you recently. It’s never a bad idea to ask for help.
      I hope you start to heal from all the terrible things you’ve experienced. Remember, you are not alone. Perhaps others out there have not experienced your exact losses, but pain is universal and we know what it’s like to feel our spirit has been broken. But it gets better over time, you just have to accept it. Don’t let your emotions control you. By all means feel them and experience them, don’t try to suppress them, but don’t let them dictate what you do or how you live your life.
      I hope this helps. Don’t worry, you will get through this.

      • Cozette Marie

        Thanks. I knew someone who had MS, her husband took her everywhere for treatment. I kinda realize why you call you or blog Dead Brain Walking.
        My psychiatrist, is the one who prescribed all the anti-depressants. It’s like I have a heart of stone, can’t function, I no longer get excited or really upset about anything. I pray for direction, what’s my purpose for the rest of my life? Etc……I guess what I’m trying to figure out, what happened to all my creativity, my mind? I know I’ll never be the same, but darn, I’m Dead Brain Woman Walking, or maybe my brain fell out, MIA? A mystery……
        Thanks Again for your reply. I wish you well.

      • I can understand the intuitive drive to sort of shut down and go numb. You know, when I was young my mom always told me that my dad was going to “blow a fuse”, which to her meant that he’d become very angry with us, (I think her other phrase of ” blow a gasket” was far more apt). But we can only take so much at once, and for some people the defense mechanism kicks in that is very much like blowing a fuse. Our circuits overload, the breaker trips, and we shut down, essentially become apathetic, because at that point feeling anything, positive or negative, is very frightening. So nothing seems as important anymore for a while, it’s all about just getting through the next day without breaking down. That’s okay for a period of time, but that sort of coping mechanism can quickly become self destructive. We may start neglecting aspects of our lives that we should not: our jobs, family, physical and mental health, etc.
        You’re having difficulty finding your creativity again. Try to remember the things that have motivated you in the past. When working on a project, start out small and simple rather than trying to pick up where you left off, and be proud of your accomplishments, no matter how small.
        The journey of recovery can be long and arduous, but it’s also one of self exploration. You most likely won’t be the person you once were, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Always in life, exploit possibilities for positive change, positive being the most important aspect of that sentence. We want to honor ourselves for what we’ve lost, and honor those we’ve lost, by living a life that we, and they, could be proud of.

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