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Grieving Life Before Chronic Illness: How to Find Acceptance

By Ashley Broadwater
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
August 16, 2023
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It's not uncommon for people who’re newly diagnosed with a chronic illness to struggle with coming to terms with the impact their diagnosis has on their life. This can lead to a period of mourning.

For instance, they may grieve a loss of independence and privacy, not being able to leave their home or do as often, not being able to cross certain items off their bucket list, or becoming more dependent on caregivers, says Iris Waichler, a licensed therapist with Choosing Therapy in Chicago.

In addition to these concerns, “dating, going to school, working full-time, or having children can all be impacted due to the physical and mental toll the illness takes on a person,” says Kelsey Bates, licensed mental health counselor and founder of CBT for Women in Arlington, Virginia. “This kind of grief for your old life [may] look like anger and resentment at your body… or sadness that you feel left behind. You may feel like your life plan is derailed and the ‘old you’ was the ‘good you.’”

As a result, says Waichler, you may experience the range of emotions outlined in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “There's no specific time frame associated with these stages, and some people may not experience all stages or may visit a stage more than once.”

Acceptance is a key part, however. “Acceptance does not mean you're giving up in your treatment journey or that you're ‘okay’ with this chronic illness and pain,” Bates explains. “Acceptance is a daily practice of recognizing what your reality is, acknowledging the grief or pain of [losing out on] what you hope your reality could be, then committing to small and realistic actions to improve your day-to-day.”

3 Strategies to Help Find Acceptance

How do you handle your condition and the grief surrounding it? Here are a few coping skills that can ease feelings of grief and help you move toward acceptance.

Mindfulness Skills

Techniques such as meditation and deep breathing “can have a calming effect on the body and the mind,” Waichler says.

Mindful journaling is another way to identify and express how you feel in the moment, which is important for making peace. “Many people notice the results of intangible grief, like anger or listlessness, but haven't taken the time to think about what they've lost,” says Kimberly Vered Shashoua, a licensed therapist in Austin, Texas, who works with young people living with chronic illnesses. “Thinking about how our lives have changed makes us more able to handle our grief.”

To articulate your losses, she recommends reflecting on questions like how chronic illness has changed your life, your day-to-day activities, and your hopes for the future.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Practices

ACT is a type of therapy under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy that’s effective for people with a range of mental and physical health conditions. Some research suggests that ACT may help improve quality of life, reduce distress, and improve resilience for people with chronic illness. It’s another option you can pursue independently or with a therapist.

The basic premise of ACT is that grief, pain, disappointment and other emotions are natural and inevitable parts of life. Shashoua encourages her patients to sit with that notion. She says, “You can drop the pep talk and just feel that sometimes, things are crappy. Accepting that it’s hard can relieve some of the pressure we feel to soldier on.”

And as for the next steps (the “C” in “ACT”), know that committing to changes that may seem small—say, taking your medications or going on a short walk—can make a huge impact, Bates adds.

Focus on What Brings Meaning to Your Life

It’s totally understandable to get caught up in the ways in which your condition limits you. Validate that! At the same time, it can be helpful to focus on areas in which you aren’t limited and to pursue options there, Waichler says. “This can be challenging, but it’s an important goal to work on as you try to understand what the new normal will be in your life,” she says.

This might entail activities like volunteering, trying a new artistic hobby you’ve always been interested in, or listening to a new podcast. Waichler also mentions seeing walkers or canes, for example, as devices that help you maximize your independence, not as limitations.

In the end, a chronic illness may be a significant change—it's okay to grieve a vision of your life that may now be different. "Grief is a reflection of loss," Shashoua says. But when you're ready to move on, try working through these strategies. And if your feelings don't seem manageable, reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional, who can offer additional support.

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