Wednesday, June 8, 2016

On Grief

Grief is an odd beast. Despite our efforts to tame it, to explain it, to contain it, it shows up when we least expect it and in ways that we can’t predict. I don’t mean that we never know when some grief-causing event will happen - I mean that grief shows up weeks, months, years after some event, surprising us with its black fury.

Everyone is familiar with the “five stages of grief” as defined by Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross:
  1. denial 
  2. anger 
  3. bargaining 
  4. depression 
  5. acceptance
and I thought I understood them, too. I’ve gone through these stages when confronted by the loss of loved ones, and - more pertinent to this post - because of the loss of my old life due to chronic illness. I went through these stages 3-4 years into my illness, when I realized I was suffering from depression and needed psychological help. I saw a therapist for a few years, was on antidepressants for a while, and then felt like I’d reached stage 5, and I was good to go for the rest of my life.

But then, 2 years ago, when my illness was still undiagnosed and my condition continued to deteriorate, it became apparent that I was depressed again. So, back to the therapist, back on antidepressants, and back though the grief process. And, once again, I felt I had hit stage 5, and I was good to go.

And then something amazing happened: I received a diagnosis of my “mystery” illness! After over 12 years of searching and seeking, traveling all over the country seeing specialists, I got referred to a doctor here in my hometown who diagnosed me! And he started me on a treatment that is already making a difference in how I feel. This is great news, right? I finally know what I have, and I have a treatment that is improving my condition! Awesome!

But - here’s the weird thing - I’m facing grief all over again. Just like before, I am grieving the life I used to live: a life of sports, of world travel, of a career I loved. A life of health and vitality. And I’m grieving for my future life, because even though I have a diagnosis and treatment, the diagnosis is of a chronic illness, meaning I’ll never be healed (barring a miracle) and I’ll have to be struggling every day to face life as a disabled person. I can’t eat what I want, I can’t do what I want, and this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life.

So, here I am again, in the land of grief. And I finally get it: grief is something you never get over. And those five stages? They don’t happen in order. Heck, I’ve gone through all five in a single day! And then I wake up and have to go through them all over again! Or I’ll get stuck in one stage for a day, or a week, or a month. And I can go from acceptance, back to anger, on to depression and then end up in denial. There’s no rhyme or reason to the stages. And - this is the important thing - there is no end to grief. Grief is now a part of my life, and will be with me until the day I die. It’s a part of me now because my old life is gone, and will always be gone, and I’ll always miss it. Some days that grief is easier to bear, but some days it comes crashing down on me like a black wave and it’s all I can do to make it through the day.

Coming to this realization - that grief never goes away - is actually a good thing. Now I don’t feel like a failure when one of the stages of grief hits me out of the blue; it’s not because I haven’t “completed” the five stages - there is no completion. When you suffer from a truly life-altering event, grief will always be there. But that’s okay - now that I know I’ll never “get over” my grief, I won’t beat myself up when the dark days come. I’ll simply recognize the darkness for what it is, and know that I will make it through to better days. I always have and I always will, because it is God who holds my hand and leads me through the “valley of the shadow of death.” He is the one who comforts me and catches my tears, and reassures me that I’ll make it out of the darkness into the light once again. 

Just like my chronic illness, grief is now a part of me. And, just as I’ve learned to live with my illness, I’m learning to live with grief. It’s just the way it is. And that’s okay.