We Are Not Alone: Supporting Our Loved Ones as They Grieve Our Chronic Illnesses
Grief is something that we have all experienced. The process is a natural human response to tragedy and loss. It is often cyclical and traumatic. I have read and written various articles referencing the grief process. Discussions with my niece and my dear friend led me to write this week’s column. MS and chronic illness affect our loved ones and they, too, must be allowed to grieve. We often look to them for support, yet it is befitting to remember they need support as well.
Some time ago I had a conversation with my niece about MS. She confided that when she heard of my diagnosis she was afraid and deeply saddened. My niece stated that she did not want to think about what could happen to me along this journey of MS. I instantly recognized that she was beginning to enter the grief process. She had a clear case of denial. I made a gallant effort to console her, telling her that I have faith and I believe that I will be okay. I told her that life is not easy and we all have battles to fight. I assured my niece that I will not give up and I will be with her until my course is finished. For months I thought of this conversation. I realized that I had it several times before and that most of my family and close friends probably had similar thoughts and reactions.
Days ago, I had an in-depth discussion with a dear friend. A couple of years ago she suffered the devastating loss of her best friend whom she affectionately called her sister. Her sister had chronic illnesses, one of which was MS. I knew immediately that this was a complex and emotive subject for my friend, yet I felt the need to inquire further. She began to tell me how her sister did not divulge her MS status immediately. My friend recounted how she witnessed the rapid decline of her sister, both physically and emotionally. As I listened, I also had an intense emotional reaction, yet I maintained my composure. My friend began to tell me about her sister, how she loved her high heels (like me), had such a zest for life, and how devastated her sister was when her quality of life changed. She told me about the problems with balance, vision, weight loss, and depression encountered by her sister and how she felt completely powerless because there was nothing that she could do. My friend apprised me of her initial denial, not wanting to admit that her sister was gravely ill. She then recalled the anger that encompassed her as she thought about her sister’s death and other important loved ones who were taken from her and other losses she incurred. My friend felt as though life continued to greet her with tragedy after tragedy. This led her into a cycle of depression and eventually to the place of acceptance. Most of us, if not all, can relate to these intense emotions, which are indicative of the grief process.
I told my friend that it is not an accident that she and I are connected. I believe the universe gives us opportunities to learn, grow, and implement life’s lessons in our daily living. When I am experiencing difficult symptoms and having a tough time, she encourages and listens to me. I asked what she would do differently if she could turn back time. My friend stated that she would have listened more, and she would have focused more on the moments of life spent with her sister. That will replay in my mind, as I truly believe in making the moments count.
The general stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is pertinent that we recognize and accept that our loved ones also experience intense grief as they, too, wade the tumultuous tides of MS and chronic illness. They experience denial because they do not want to believe that the diagnosis is true. The initial reaction is to “believe” it away by saying this can’t be happening, to think positively, or to try not to think about it at all. They are hurt because they don’t want to see us ill and in pain. They may become angry as they think about how our illnesses have altered the course of their lives. Loved ones may also become angry and feel that life is “just not fair.” Depression can set in as they feel powerless over our diseases and their inability to defend us from the injurious effects of chronic illness. Eventually, they too will arrive at the place of acceptance, realizing that we must play the hand we have been dealt. I believe that positive thinking is imperative. But we must be both positive and realistic.
Months ago I wrote a column titled, “A Father’s Sage Advice – Take All The Time You Need To Grieve.” For this week’s column, I am sending out a reminder that in addition to taking all of the time we need, we must also allow our loved ones the time they need to grieve. Illness is not exclusive to us, it affects all who love us. Support them and make every moment count. We are in this together.
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