Grieving an Acquired Disability

GoodTherapy | Grieving an Acquired Disability

The onset of disabling illness or physical or sensory impairment is often accompanied by complicated grief processes, including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. These grief processes are frequently developed in response to the concurrent losses people may experience when living with new abilities.

Most obviously, people who acquire a disability or disabling disease lose a part of their bodies and/or the functionality of parts of their bodies. Additionally, they may lose physical comfort, vigor, mobility, spontaneity, the ability to engage in certain activities, aspects of their previous lifestyles, privacy, a sense of dignity, a sense of control, a sense of efficacy/agency, a degree of independence, actual or perceived life roles, friends and other social supports, the ability to work, financial stability, their previous sense of identity and purpose, the ability to pursue previously established dreams, their previous body image, and, all in all, their previous sense of self as a whole. Therapists should be attuned to what a newly disabled person may have lost, or may perceive themselves to have lost, beyond the obvious loss of physical or sensory functionality.

How well people adjust to this potentially staggering array of losses is usually much more closely correlated to who they have been prior to the disability, and what social, emotional, and financial resources they have available to them, than to how “severe” the impairment itself is. The huge importance of social support after a disabling event cannot be overstated; people with new-onset disabilities may realize how lucky they are to have loving people in their lives as they have never realized it before, or they may feel almost completely socially and emotionally isolated. The most difficult disabilities to deal with in regard to social support seem to be “disenfranchised” disabilities (e.g., those resulting from Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) in which others do not quite believe.

Non-professionals wishing to support a newly disabled person can be most helpful by being available to him or her as a friend who is willing to listen and meet him or her where he or she is emotionally. Trying artificially to cheer the person up or suggest that the person does not, or will not, have losses is not helpful. Newly disabled people will “cheer up” once they have finished grieving their losses and reorienting themselves to their new situation, often with the assistance of a counselor or therapist.

Another key to successful adaptation to a new disabling condition seems to be successful identity reconstruction, a process in which therapists can be particularly helpful. This may often entail psychological, existential, and/or spiritual shifts in perspective toward valuing innate qualities (as opposed to physical or comparative ones), authenticity, and taking life slowly and savoring it. Identity reconstruction, it should be noted, is not necessarily a finite process, as some disabling conditions are progressive and require constant readjustment.

Keep in mind that a large number of the losses with which a person with an acquired disability must learn to cope are not due to the physical impairment itself but rather to limitations imposed on the person by society. Therefore, therapists should not insist that people with disabilities “accept” their condition of disablement as theirs to adjust to, rather than, say, as an invitation to fight injustice.

Ultimately, it is much more helpful for therapists to view identity reconstruction, rather than “acceptance” of one’s disability, as the end-stage of grieving an acquired disability.

© Copyright 2010 by By Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Martha

    May 27th, 2010 at 4:16 AM

    I completely agree with you that people who suffer a disability or similar issue go through trauma and experience a lot of grief.

    When I was little, I had to get braces to fix my imperfect teeth and it was very embarrassing at school.I felt like I had lost something forever and would hardly smile.To have grieved so much for such a little thing,I can understand what a person would feel like to have become disabled.

    Hence they require all the help they can get and all the possible counselling they can have immediately after the disability.

  • Carol

    May 27th, 2010 at 4:40 AM

    I know that when my brother became disabled due to a job related injury I hated hearing people tell him to chin up, it could have been worse, he could have lost his life. But to him he did. He lost the ability to work and provide for his family and for him that is his life. He went through a very serious bout with depression and anxiety and has been getting treated for that for years and I am not sure that it is something that he will ever be able to work past. He is a completely different person than he was before the accident and it makes me wonder if I will ever get my brother back.

  • webber R.

    May 27th, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    it would really help if the person was sat and spoken to about what has happened in his/her life and the ways to cope with it and the person could also do with some inspiration. and of course this talking to has to be done by a professional who knows what a person would go through in such a situation.

  • Erma K.

    May 27th, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    I’d feel uncomfortable and helpless even if I’ve got fever and had to stay at home…just don’t know how people who acquire a permanent disability deal with it…just hope there is a system in place to get them out of the low feeling and prevent them from taking any drastic steps.

  • A.S.manuel

    May 28th, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    I know at least two people who have ended their lives due to have acquired a disability and it is sad how we fight hard to save a life and just because there has been a disability that person decides to throw it all away in a moment…

  • audra

    May 28th, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    it can be really hard to get used to one’s disability.My aunt struggled with coping to herself after one of her legs had to be amputated after an accident.she hated herself for not being self-reliant anymore and for having to depend on others up to a certain extent.but she is much happier today than she was immediately after the accident.this is because she has got used to her disability and she has discovered that things are not really as bad as she had expected them to be.

  • Siobhan

    May 29th, 2010 at 4:14 PM

    Some people just have no clue what it is like to be disabled. They go around saying that things could be worse, but you know, they are not the ones dealing with all of those losses that the disabled person is feeling. Maybe if they could take just one minute to be in their shoes then they would better understand what the other person is going through!

  • Wendy E. Smith

    June 16th, 2010 at 7:33 PM

    Thanks to all who responded to this post. I am particularly grateful for your heartfelt stories of relatives who have been adjusting to acquired disabilities and of people who decided to commit suicide in the wake of newly acquired disabilities. These stories indicate to me that depression in people with newly (or relatively newly)acquired disabilities should always be taken seriously, and treated. Remember that depression may or may not appear in the first months after the disabling condition arises.

  • Elizabeth

    July 9th, 2010 at 1:40 AM

    Good comment Wendy. I am a person who worked with people with disabilities for over 20 years, assisting them to return to the workforce. I have been battling my own medical conditions now for eight years and finally had to resign from my position due to my health. I can tell you that next to divorce, it is one of the most difficult things in my life that I have had to deal with – and I used to counsel people with disabilites! It is also very difficult, as I have a condition(s) that people can’t see, therefore they are even more prone to not believe it does exist or most seem to think “its all in my head”. I have tried to over a year to deal on my own (i do however have a supportive family) and i honestly can not do it. I thought i could, and yes, suicide has crossed my mind a time or two, but i would never go through with it, i am smart enough to know that i do still matter to my family, even if i am “less than whole”. I am now seeking the help of a therapist, as i can’t “counsel” myself to get through this. Having to quit your profession is like losing your identity, truly. As your site states, one must learn how to be the new person that he/she is, and this is more difficult than i think most can even imagine. I say to those that are family members of someone with an aquired disability, to try and be understanding and know that recovering is a process, and one that doesn’t happen most of the time quickly. I’ve not worked in almost two years now, and i’m still tryingn to adjust. It also makes it tough that our SSA seems to follow the rule of thumb as most, if you can’t see it, it must not exist. This is truly a shame.

  • Ronnie W.

    December 2nd, 2016 at 2:35 PM

    My life almost to a T.
    How are you now? If better, how did you do it?

  • Meagan

    May 17th, 2012 at 12:33 AM

    This post means a lot to me! I have been wondering whether or not I need to do some grief counseling for my new disability. Reading this, after bringing me to tears, made me realize I do. I also appreciate the fact you mentioned chronic fatigue syndrome and how many people “don’t quite believe” what is happening to them. This has been a huge struggle for me since I have a harsher version of “chronic fatigue syndrome” where it affects my body more than the A-typical. Thank you for posting this! Again, it means more to me than you know!

  • Liz

    November 20th, 2014 at 8:54 PM

    Chronic illness sometimes, as in my own experience, disables one slowly and insidiously. My doctor encouraged me to continue working for as long as I could because she knew I would suffer from a loss of identity and independence. I understand her thinking, but if she and my husband could have walked in my shoes during the last year or two that I worked they might have encouraged me to quit sooner.

    Patients who are becoming gradually disabled need help recognizing and communicating their physical pain, grief and quality of life. Especially those with little support from friends and family. They should be encouraged to trust their instincts as to when they are no longer able to work. It’s hard enough dealing with the fall out of encroaching disability – explained so well in this article – without also feeling that they can’t stop working to care for themselves because they can’t afford it or that they would disappoint everyone around them.

  • Greg

    November 18th, 2015 at 2:08 AM


    Well said! You nailed the essence of gradually realizing that you cannot continue working anymore.


  • A. Joy

    February 25th, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    As a person with MS, Multiple Sclerosis, I wanted to point out that, sometimes there isn’t really a “newly acquired” to Disability, as much as a gradual process. Sometimes we can initially “become” disabled, having a support system of people around who are supportive and helpful. Then the disability gradually becomes more pronounced, making the basics more difficult, and that “support system” gradually disappears. It is important to realize that the grief process may be a long-term, ongoing process,mover a number of years. Just because someone has not “newly” acquired a disability does not mean that they “should have” reached the end of the grieving process.

    For me, the process has been about 5 years, so far. I became unable to work about then, but was still able to do some self-employment, on a limited basis. The important part had been being able to work at my own pace, resting whenever it became necessary, not having deadlines, per se. At the time, I had a partner who was very supportive, many friends and a fairly active social network. Over the years it has become more and more difficult to function on my own. Outside situations added stresses that caused me to loose my house, and some income, making daily living more difficult, and that difficulty lead to the loss of that “support system” that I had built around me. Many people could not deal with the changes in me, that those changes in circumstances caused. Depression and anxiety can wax and wane, depending on physical changes, and life changes beyond our control. Those things can make it harder to maintain connections with the people around us. That increases the need for support, but often that support can not stay and watch the changes.

    Thank-you for bring this to light.

  • happyegghead

    May 24th, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    After a 35 year career helping others adjust to illness and disability, I had to retire due to a combination of issues. I was born with a form of Muscular Dystrophy but is didn’t get in my way until my late 50’s and it began to progress. I then had two serious illnesses within a year and I fully agree with Elizabeth. The “loss of identity” is a devasting change to ordeal. My condition is not visible other than the cane I must now use to navigate curbs and stairs – and that in itself is a body image injury. I have learned to be a new me, but it doesn’t take away from the fact I still miss who I used to be!

  • Richard

    January 20th, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    We all have points in our lives that lead to navigational adjustments. The thing is some issues concerning your self worth are hard to find a positive direction to point your attention to. I never had a glorious job, but I done my best at whatever it was I was doing. I start doing sheetrock straight out of Jr.High ,I was a foreman for one of the latest commercial construction companies in the area by the time I was twenty four. I buried my first born on my thirtyth birthday, I quit a job of over six years and started plumbing, I took a nine dollar an hour pay cut.I went from being the man to being a green laborer ,I knew nothing about it. I ran my own crew in a year gaining eight dollars an hour in raises. My employer was very impressed,I told him I was so bright that my dad called me son. Anyway I got back into sheetrock after hurricane Katrina. I fell off four and a half scaffold, approximately twenty three feet landing on my head.Take in mind the medically induced coma, the bleeding from the ears, loss of taste buds, three months of therapy to learn to walk again just physical obstacles. The things that really hurt was becoming a domestic prisoner I don’t know why my wife is still here,I feel that I have nothing to offer. After seeking employment with past employers, I found out that I am considered as a liability due to balance issues that I have. I never climbed up anything while working for said employer, I was a babysitter of grown men. Our insurance companies have control of to much of our lives.I got disability after being turned down three times,I had to give an attorney a big portion of what wasn’t his just to get mine. My health insurance covers what it feels necessary. Doctors keep you alive but they don’t improve the quality of life. The highest mistake I made in my life was living through the fall.I can’t accept being worthless.I checked on working with disability, it is allowed part time . You are required to turn in check stubs for them to monitor, the only people who will employ me are sole proprietors and don’t write checks. They want to use me for my knowledge and foresight, because we have made society of people who either don’t want to be held responsible, or are too ignorant to be given any responsibility. You know as a father it never has bothered me to tell my children no if I thought it wasn’t deserved,but it kills me to say no because its not in my budget. I’m sure it would have been a great loss to my family if I would have died. To me I did, this ain’t me.I quit going to church ,I feel being alive after the accident is punishment. I don’t know how to approach a doctor about it,I’m scared a doctor will just make the pharmaceutical companies money instead of being able to help me. There is a difference between living and being alive. There are two reasons I haven’t chewed on the end of a shotgun,1. Chicken shit ,2.affraid it would teach my children to do so. All I can say is I’m confused,and I don’t have any hope. Wish I could find help

  • The Team

    January 20th, 2016 at 9:20 AM

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for sharing. It can be difficult to address feelings of worthlessness, and we are sorry to hear of the challenges you are facing. In times of difficulty, it can often help to speak to a therapist or counselor, and so we encourage you to reach out.

    In your comment you mentioned being afraid a doctor would “just make the pharmaceutical companies money.” If this is in reference to a mental health professional, please know many therapists work to help people in therapy explore and cope with challenges without the use of medication.

    If you reach a point of crisis, or believe you are in danger of harming yourself or others, please visit your nearest emergency room or contact local law enforcement. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY). Some other crisis resources that may be helpful can be found here:

    You can also find a qualified mental health professional by using our site. To locate a mental health professional in your area, simply enter your ZIP code here:

    Please know you are not alone. Help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The Team

  • Richard

    January 20th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    When I started plumbing, I used a financial struggle to band aid an emotional struggle. I haven’t found a band aid for my worthless existence.

  • Kathy

    January 16th, 2019 at 9:28 AM

    Richard, I hope it got better. Trust me as a mother to a disabled 24 year old son who feels the same way you do; you are not worthless, you are priceless.

  • Carol

    December 27th, 2019 at 3:32 PM

    Dear Richard, I am struggling, too, with feelings of worthlessness. The changes in my family relationships have been extremely hard, not to mention all the things I have had to give up since becoming severely limited in my walking ability. I wonder if you found peace? I am working on my coping, but it’s hard to feel both physically AND mentally weak. It’s really hard. I think maybe I will someday feel differently but right now, it’s painful.

  • Maria

    January 29th, 2020 at 3:17 PM

    I’m also struggling with mobility since having a knee condition in both knees. I’ve been on crutches for nearly 5 months and spend most of my day indoors. I did have some recovery but each time I’d overdo things because I’d be so excited and make things worse, I feel the loss that I was getting better at one stage and could walk further than the corner shop. Now I’m paying the price and knees are worse and more painful. I’ve recently been having outbreaks of crying and anger and feeling like a caged animal. I live alone as well and think that doesn’t help. I will be getting some counselling next month and that’ll be helpful, I feel I really need it. It’s hard to accept this is my life and at times I just want to give up but at the same time, I can’t.

  • Jess

    October 4th, 2020 at 3:38 PM

    Thank you for this article Wendy. I’d love to know more about your work with “identity reconstruction” and how to navigate that process with clients.

  • Camille

    November 28th, 2021 at 11:40 AM

    Thank you so much for this article! I have been searching for answers. I had my hip removed after infections, dislocations and prosthetic failure. It has been a constant rollercoaster of surgeries and recoveries. After three months I have realized that I have recovered over 9 times (four years) from surgeries and now I will never walk again. The denial just wore off or maybe the anesthesia. I am miserable. I am redefining my entire life. This is brutal. I have always been a type A++ person and now I feel like a failure. It’s all so confusing and heartbreaking. I am not suicidal as I am a mother and grandmother and would never leave that horrible legacy to my children but this is the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Most of the support groups are for paraplegics or quadriplegics but my situation is different. I don’t feel like I fit anywhere. I feel more alone than I have every felt. I just need to connect.

  • Carol

    November 30th, 2021 at 7:07 AM

    Camille, you are not alone. The pain and suffering of non-walking is very real, and I have learned that there are SO many of us who go through this sort of redefinition of life. I too had problems from hip surgery that ended up going south. Then, after 2 surgeries on both hips, my foot developed a chronic issue that seems unable to heal. Doctors are unsure why my foot won’t heal. Long story short, I have had to change many of the physical things I could do before. I used to loathe using the scooters at stores (that was for other people, not me!) but I now just use them when I have to. I forced myself to do it, even though to me personally it felt hugely humiliating. I also learned to just ask for a wheelchair at museums. I used to love hiking, but now I have learned to enjoy sitting in natural areas and enjoy the view. These changes–forced on me by a partial disability– were very unwelcome. I struggled with letting others do things so that I could get off my feet. I still do sometimes. We just finished hosting Thanksgiving for 17, and I had to allow others to step in while I got off my feet, which I really did not want to do. I recognize that your disability–inability to walk at all–is FAR harder than having some small ability to walk. It has taken a long time just for me to accept partial disability. My own experience has been that I had to learn that surrender is not failure; it is embracing reality. God/Creator/The Universe has allowed me a taste of suffering. For me, it’s wasted if I do not try to become a more compassionate person, recognizing that we ALL have limits, we all have disabilities, we all suffer in some way. This unity with humanity in frailty is not welcome. I hate it. I like being the strong one in control. But I have been trying to accept the new now, my new abilities, my new understanding of the fragility and sanctity and wonder and difficulty of life. For me,it helped to surrender that desire to be “strong,” “youthful,” “in control,” “the protagonist,” etc. That definitely does not mean I always feel OK about all this. Another thing that really bothers me is our culture’s emphasis and celebration of disabled people who are noble, uncomplaining, long-suffering, cheerful, and optimistic. That’s trash. It’s convenient for everyone else if we behave that way. But we are not saints and we are not going to just paste on these emotions if we do not feel them. And why should we? Our pain is real and we deserve to be allowed some expression of it. Anyway, Camille–and everybody else here–I think it’s important that we not feel alone in what we are going through. Wishing you better days ahead.

  • Camille

    December 1st, 2021 at 3:17 AM

    Dear Carol,
    Everything you wrote is exactly what I feel and needed to hear!! Thank you so much for taking the time to write your reply. I’m so sorry for your pain and struggles. I know it’s not easy to “relive” those feelings – thank you for sharing. You are a beautiful writer – so eloquently expressed. I am deeply grateful to connect with you. You are so right about compassion for others that have suffered quietly. I felt like you were writing about me! The first time I had to use the cart at the store I felt total humiliation. I don’t feel that ways as much but I do notice how uncomfortable others are when they are around me. A whole new world – not one that I am happy about but certainly one that I will grow, understand and hopefully I’ll be a better person for it all. My deepest gratitude to you as I have been searching for a place to connect. You made my day – my week!

  • Carol

    December 2nd, 2021 at 5:37 AM

    Camille, I agree that it helps so much to know you are not alone and that someone else has an inkling of what you’re going through. This forum helped me, as did a Facebook group that is for people with my weird foot condition. That group helped me find some non-surgical ways to alleviate my foot issues. It’s not cured, but thanks to the group, it’s better. Also, the people on that Facebook forum understand what it’s like to suddenly not walk. They are parents, nurses, former runners, researchers, factory workers –anybody. Just having a group know what the details are like is consoling. For instance, I felt horrible about being in a wheelchair all day. It added to my constant irritation that I kept scraping up the door frames to every room, peeling paint off of all of them. OMG, it unhinged me that I kept scraping up the painted doorframes! Really, it was my cumulative frustration that I focused on one small thing, but it symbolized my powerlessness when I couldn’t keep from marring my own home. I also found my relationship with my husband became very strained. I would blow up at him over small things. Don’t laugh–we had a major fight over him cutting my toenails and doing a terrible job. I guess I just needed to cry and grieve over the loss of my healthy self.
    Camille, you are grieving a HUGE loss. The loss of your able-bodied self, your younger self, your previous self, is enormous. I hope you will find it less hard as time goes on. Hang in there!! It sounds like you have a family who cares about you, and that means a lot. There are many of us out there, and I hope you can find people who understand and care and help lift you along the way.

  • Camille

    December 3rd, 2021 at 5:13 AM

    Oh, Carol, thank you again so much! I am doing exactly the same thing – scraping door frames, walls, furniture, etc. It’s soooo irritating and yes a constant reminder. I physically feel everything so sitting constantly is difficult. I stand on one leg during the day just to get some relief but then my leg is screaming so I sit down. I have balanced that “exercise” somewhat. I would love to know the forum on Facebook if you feel comfortable sharing that with me. I am a computer tech but for the life of me this was the only site I have found. After connecting with you I realize how imperative it is that I reach out and talk to others. Nobody I know could possibly understand what I’m going through. Everything you said applies to me. It made a huge difference chatting with you! I have a therapist I have seen for decades and she is wonderful but I need someone that understands my situation. Your response to me had made me feel so much better about talking about this. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!!!
    I also want to say that I’m so sorry you are going through all of this and understand the frustration. Especially since they cannot figure out how to “fix” your foot issues. My situation was very complicated as well and I am still reeling about “why couldn’t they fix me!”. My heart goes out to you and I wish you easier times and less pain. You’re an angel!

  • Kathleen

    January 12th, 2023 at 3:05 PM

    If nothing else, you are a talented writer. The reader can read your pain and frustration. I came to the site as my husband of 60 years is losing his facilities. We certainly need to hear more about the feelings of those coping with loss and how we who love someone who is in pain from their loss. It would be wonderful if you were able to find a writing outlet to share your daily experience. With so many people sharing some really dumb stuff on Tic Toc, your daily experiences would be a helpful additon.

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