This is the third in a series of blogs about loss, focussing on loss of health. When we talk about loss we often mean the death of someone that we love. But actually our lives are full of small and not so small losses and we can experience grief when confronted with all kinds of other losses such as the loss of a relationship, loss of health in self or in a loved one, losing a job, loss of financial stability, miscarriage, retirement, loss of a much loved pet, loss of a cherished hope or dream, loss of a friendship. Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief.
A serious health problem can disrupt all aspects of our lives, whether it’s a chronic or life-threatening illness, such as cancer, or a major health event such as a stroke, heart attack, or debilitating injury. It may be less serious, not life threatening, but nevertheless, have a major effect on our day to day lives.
Shock and emotional upheaval
Many serious health problems can develop unexpectedly, upsetting our lives totally out of the blue. One day, we feel safe and in control of our life and our future, the next we feel we are drowning and there is nothing solid in terms of present and future, to hold onto.
We may feel overwhelmed by waves of difficult emotions—from fear and worry to profound sadness, despair, and grief—or just numb, frozen by shock or the feeling that we will never be able to cope. The emotional upheaval can make it difficult to function or think straight. Common emotional responses to serious illness include:
- Anger or frustration as we struggle to come to terms with our diagnosis—repeatedly asking, “Why me?”
- Facing up, for the first time in our lives, to our own mortality and the prospect that the illness could potentially be life-ending.
- Worrying about the future—how we’ll cope, perhaps how we’ll pay for treatment, what will happen to our loved ones, our work, the pain or disability we may face as the illness progresses, or how our life may change.
- Grieving the loss of our health and old life – the loss of our whole identity – it may feel as though we have become our diagnosis and it dominates every thought and every conversation we have.
- Feeling powerless, hopeless, or unable to look beyond the worst-case scenario.
- Regret or guilt about things we may have done that we think may have contributed to our illness or injury. Shame and worry at how our condition is affecting those around us.
- Denial that anything is wrong or refusing to accept the diagnosis.
- A sense of isolation, feeling cut off from friends and loved ones who can’t understand what we’re going through.
How we react emotionally and the degree of psychological distress we experience depends on many different factors, including age, personality, the type and prognosis of the medical problem we’re facing, our financial situation, and the amount of support we have.
Whatever our situation, experiencing a wide range of difficult emotions is a normal response to a potentially life-changing situation. It doesn’t mean that we’re weak, going mad, or won’t be able to meet the health and emotional challenges that lie ahead.
There is no right or wrong way to feel
It’s important to remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. We’re all different, so shouldn’t tell ourselves what we should be thinking, feeling, or doing after a diagnosis or serious health event. Taking time to process the news and being kind to ourselves as we and our loved ones adjust to our new situation is very important indeed.
Don’t ignore or suppress thoughts and feelings
It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing our emotions, but they exist whether we are paying attention to them or not. Trying to ignore our feelings will only increase stress and maybe even delay recovery. If we allow ourselves to feel what we feel, the intense, disturbing feelings will pass, the initial distress we felt at news of our diagnosis will start to ease, and some aspects of life will even return to normal.
Be patient with the pace of treatment and recovery
After receiving an initial diagnosis or suffering a major health event, it can take time and an array of tests and consultations before an appropriate course of treatment is decided upon. (And even when this course of treatment is planned, the timeframe of rollout may be frustratingly slow or uncertain.) It’s easy to become anxious as we wait for a clearer picture of what the road to recovery will entail. People generally find that going online and relying on what can often be inaccurate or scary information will only make them feel worse and they make the decision to STOP doing this completely. Switching focus can be very helpful – when we are faced with a lot of unknowns, we can still care for ourselves—eat a healthy diet, exercise, sleep well—and pursue those relationships and activities that bring us joy.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541
Book a counselling session today!
See also: Stress Related Illness,