For the majority of people coping with chronic pain or illness it came on suddenly while we were innocently living normal lives. Whether we were nine or fifty years old chronic pain brought about devastating changes in the life we knew. These are no small changes, no small loses. Marriages end, jobs are lost, homes are lost, confidence is lost, we are limited and altered in ways we never imagined. Yet we do our best to limp along, many of us fighting like hell to find our way back to the life we once knew. The truth that none of us want to admit is that that life is gone. It’s true and it hurts, it’s a crushing conclusion and it’s an inevitable conclusion. What we need to do before we go any further is allow ourselves to grieve for what we have lost. That will take time and a lot of tears, but that is OK because it is a major loss. In fact, it’s a series of major losses. A significant life loss is considered a separation from a significant person, place, item, or event. Most people suffering chronic pain have experienced many of these losses at once, whereas just one is considered a major stressor requiring recovery and coping skills. If that weren’t enough to convince you, serious illness itself is considered a major loss. What we need most is the one thing we are least likely to give ourselves; time and space to grieve.
Grief has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. So if you are sitting there saying to yourself. “I’m fine, I don’t need to grieve.” You are already beginning the grieving process without even knowing it. I’m right there with you. I have been fighting my chronic pain and illness for nearly eight years and it is only now that I’m ready to look at my life and grieve over the one I have lost. I don’t want to accept that it is gone, but I know that the life I knew before is lost. What I am going to experience in the future can be happy and triumphant in ways I don’t currently know, but I do need to take the time and grieve over the one I have lost.
Grief is a very personal experience, while we all go through the five stages they may not go in order and the time spent in each step varies. Everyone is different, there is no time limit, there is no wrong way to go about it, and whatever you feel at any point is perfectly valid. No one can tell you how you should feel or when. You may even move from one stage to another and back again. There is no way to grieve wrong. Take your time, give yourself the freedom to acknowledge your feelings. Let the tears come and go as they please. Seek your comfort in whatever makes you feel better from a hug to a day alone with a good book. This whole process is yours and yours alone. You will come to your own conclusions and you will find your own path. Through it all, most importantly, be kind to yourself. It is not something we are used to practicing. We are caught up in keeping everyone else in mind, keeping up with work and whatever other obligations we may have. It will be a challenge, but put yourself first for a while. In some ways grieving due to chronic pain can be more painful than losing someone to death. This is because with death you lose a loved one and then you go through the grieving process, whereas with chronic pain the losses are continuous, there is no point where it stops and healing can begin. Your healing process is going to have challenges that no one can predict, so don’t be discouraged if you feel like you are moving one step forward and two back. To help you on this journey lets take a closer look at the five stages of grief.
Denial. As humans in general we are professionals at denial. We often practice it in multiple situations of our daily life. Maybe our job makes us miserable, but we have bills to pay and responsibilities to maintain so we convince ourselves that it is not that bad. We do the same with relationships, living situations, financial positions, and on and on. This is a defense mechanism and most of us are very good at it. Denial in grief is a temporary reaction that can help through the first wave of pain. We all like to deny that the life we once knew is gone. This is your life now. Some things will never be the same.
Anger. Anger can be a cathartic stage. It is really easy to be angry about chronic pain. We scream to the heaven’s “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “How could this happen?” The feelings of betrayal can be overwhelming. “How could my own body turn on me like this?” It is easy to be angry at the world, at our doctors, even our family and friends and especially the world. It is frustrating that no one understands what chronic pain is like until they have lived it. The medical system is suspicious of anyone claiming pain and treats you accordingly. Trying to find a doctor that believes you and has any success in treating you is like winning the lottery. The whole situation is nothing but obstacle after obstacle, while you are suffering. How could you not be angry?
Bargaining. Bargaining is the point where you start making deals with God or the universe to reverse your situation. “If you make me better I will go join a convent, or feed the needy, or do cartwheels for the rest of my life. Whatever you want, I’ll do it. Just make me better!” This is also where the “if” game begins. If only I had gotten treated sooner. If only I had known. If only I had made a different decision. If only…etc. This can go on indefinitely. We are trying to regain control over what has already happened. The reality is that even if we had made different decisions the outcome may be the same. Our lives changing so drastically due to chronic pain is not our fault and not within our control.
Depression. I’m so sad, why bother with anything?” “I’m in so much pain, I can’t go on” “I can’t live this life.” You lose interest in things that used to bring you joy. It seems like the color of the world are duller. You may isolate yourself, refuse visitors and spend a lot of time crying. This is a mentally painful stage where you begin to let go of your old life. Chronic pain can be exceptionally lonely and this sensation settles in very deeply during this stage. You feel disconnected from everyone close to you. You feel the pain and the loss of your old life and begin moving into the final stage—acceptance.
Acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean that suddenly everything is just fine. What you find at the end of your grieving is just as personal as the process itself. However, it is likely that you will still feel the pain of the life you once knew, it just means that you have learned to accept your new limitations and found new ways to find joy within them. You may still feel angry, lonely, depressed, betrayed, and lost at some times, but you will have found coping mechanisms to find your way through the hard times and to capture the beautiful moments, however fleeting, that make life worth living.