In my work with chronic illness, I’ve noticed that people tend to move through the stages of grief. Just as when a family member or friend dies, when you’re diagnosed with a chronic condition, it’s like losing a loved one: you! Because of this diagnosis, you may lose your sense of identity or ideas of the person you used to be. You may lose your living situation or your job. You can even lose relationships. These losses can add up and can negatively affect your mental health.
After a diagnosis it could be days, weeks, months, or even years that you may spend going through the process of grieving. There may be times when you accept your illness, and other times when you don’t; that’s a normal part of the grieving process. Ultimately, you must grieve for the person you were so that you can move on and accept the person you are.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who was a pioneer in near-death studies. She discussed her theory of the five stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying. Those same principles can be applied to living with a chronic illness. Let’s outline the five stages more thoroughly:
The first stage of diagnosis is usually denial. Denial in a chronic illness is not admitting that you have an illness. In this stage, many people simply don’t comply with medical advice or treatments because they’re “not sick.” You not only deny the diagnosis to yourself, but also to your family and friends.
Anger can surface after the initial denial stage. Anger can be pointed at the doctor who made the diagnosis, or you might blame yourself for “causing” the disease. You may feel angry toward family members who don’t have the illness: “It’s not fair!” Anger can be expressed physically or verbally, or it may be turned inward.
Bargaining is when we try to make deals with other people. You might try to bargain with your doctor so you don’t have to take medicine or follow through with treatment. “Oh please, ______, if you’ll take this illness away, I will ______.” Bargaining can wind up hurting you more than helping you.
When the diagnosis finally sinks in, you might feel depression, or feelings of sadness or hopelessness. It can zap motivation and it can change your sleeping or eating patterns. Depression can cause you to withdraw from others or make you feel empty and worthless. As painful as it is, depression in grief can be short-lived.
Finally, after progressing through these stages, we find acceptance. This is when you have come to terms with your illness, have learned about it, and have found ways to cope with it effectively. Your general attitude toward the illness is positive and proactive. You’ve learned that while you cannot control having the diagnosis, you can control what you do about it on a regular basis (i.e. take meds, seek help, exercise, etc.).
Grief of any kind can be a painful journey, for both you and your family. You may be accepting one day, then be angry the next. That’s a normal part of the process. If you find yourself stuck in any of the stages, it would be in your best interest to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. A counselor can also help you and your family move through the stages and find acceptance.
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