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Why a Change in Health is a Form of Grief

Our bodies and health will naturally progress and change throughout our lives. Health could be affected by diets, injuries, accidents or unexpected illnesses. Personally, I had a change to my health at the young age of 19. I tore my MCL in my knee during a provincial bronze medal soccer game. I was devastated, as I had played soccer my whole life and managed not to sustain any major injuries. After my knee injury, I spent 2 months in crutches and spent a year attending physiotherapy to make sure my knee was strong again. Since the injury I have retired from playing soccer and can no longer run recreationally like I used to. I grieved losing my athletic endurance, stability, and flexibility. My knee will still seize on me at random times during the day and I will need to ice and elevate it to get it back to normal.  My lifestyle changed immensely as the hobbies I used to love were robbed from me because of my injury. 

Have you ever considered a change in your health as a form of grief and loss? John James and Russell Friedman define grief as the “conflicting feelings caused by an end or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” A change in health can create conflicting feelings and our emotional reactions can be confusing. For me, I was grateful that I could still exercise but sad I could not run the same way I used to. Changes in health can cause limitations, change in routine and lifestyle, alterations to your hopes and dreams as well as acceptance of your new reality. As we experience these changes it can create feelings of sadness, hopelessness, disappointment, and frustration. 

Limitations: After experiencing a change in your health you may bump into some limitations within your life. For some, a change in health could put limits on their ability to work and exercise, and interfere with their daily activities. Additionally, dietary restrictions and allergies can be a major health change that can make us feel limited and restrained. These limits and restrictions may include a change in grocery bills, limitations for eating out, requiring special accomodations in social events and a concerted effort to meet dietary needs. This process could be isolating and frustrating especially if it is not by choice.

Change in routine/lifestyle: When we have a major change to our health we may not be able to do what we used to, therefore we experience a change in our daily routines and lifestyle. These changes can trigger more loss and feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness, and sadness. It is important to know that a variety of emotions could be felt through these transitions and it is normal to feel them. In confidence and anonymously a young woman shared her story about her grief process following a dirt biking accident:

“I experienced a traumatic dirt biking accident that would change my life forever. My experience in the hospital was terrifying and anxiety provoking. I suffered severe injuries in my legs to the point where the doctors were concerned I would lose them. Every day the doctors would come into my room and check to see if there was a pulse in my leg and make sure they were still functioning properly. I was anxious and worried every day and hoped that I was not going to hear the worst. After many months in the hospital, steel plates and a multitude of screws, I was released from the hospital with two active legs. My healing process was lonely and isolating at times because no one knew what I was going through. There were nights that I would have nightmares about the accident and it was terrifying to re-experience it. At times I felt frustrated and hopeless that my life was not going to be better or the same for that matter.

 I nearly lost my life and my ability to walk. Being alive and healthy is something I am eternally grateful for. With that said, my life has changed forever, including my lifestyle and daily routine. Although I am happy to be alive, I grieve my old routines and lifestyle. Some losses that have triggered feelings of grief include not being able to ride dirt bikes again because of my injuries, the constant pain I experience every day, and losing full range of mobility. I had to make changes in my job such as continuously elevate my leg because it swells and I cannot take my dog on long walks. Additionally, my scars embody both of my legs and I do not like to wear shorts because it makes me uncomfortable, especially when people stare. These losses have made me feel frustrated, heartbroken, sad, and hopeless. I have felt conflicting feelings throughout this process being extremely grateful to be alive, but also feeling devastated of the new challenges I am overcoming.” 

Hopes, dreams and expectations: We all have hopes and dreams that we strive and work hard to accomplish. If we experience a health condition that impedes on our journey towards our dreams this can create feelings of grief. For example, if you dreamed of running the Boston Marathon but ended up suffering a massive injury that caused you not to run anymore, you may feel lost, disappointed, and sad. If you were in a tragic car accident, suffered permanent damage, and unable to do the things you once dreamed of, your hopes and expectations of yourself could be negated. If you suffered a brain injury and could not continue with the job or education you love you may feel discouraged and sad knowing you have to start a new career path. 

Health related changes can create immense feelings of hopelessness and disappointment. Regardless of what emotions you feel, be gentle with yourself. You are experiencing a major life transition and do not need to “figure it out” immediately. We must acknowledge and validate our emotions, be attentive to our emotions, and find healing at our own pace.

If you are struggling to overcome the pain, isolation, or loneliness caused by a loss of health, accident, injury, or illness in your life, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. We can be reached at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

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