A life lived with chronic pain will inevitably be a life of loss. Chronic pain sets in and everything changes. Life as we once knew it is no more, a once robust and meaningful existence now lived out in a state of constant lack.
Life becomes smaller, pressing in on all sides, and we begin to walk a shorter path with what appears to be fewer possibilities. It becomes easier to measure our lives based on all that is not than all that remains.
At first, the physical losses of chronic pain are most apparent – the difficulty or inability to run, walk, sit, or move as we please. And from the physical loss flows innumerable variations on this same theme. We lose relationships, jobs, finances, and dreams. We lose our comfort, favorite foods, hobbies, and vacations. Once independent, confident, and hard-working people are turned to sorrow, pain, and fatigue.
The losses begin to accumulate until we begin to feel like an entirely different person. No longer who we once were, our very identity and the foundation on which we used to center our personhood no longer works and no longer makes sense. Slowly but surely, chronic pain has tainted every part of our lives, until no corner remains untouched.
The epitome of chronic pain is a life of loss.
The losses of chronic pain are unique in their longevity and all-pervasive nature. We are not grieving a one-time instance as in a death, but an ongoing and ever-changing reality. We are not grieving the loss of one thing or one person; we are grieving dozens of separate losses, each intense enough on its own, now strikingly overpowering in their combination.
From the loss outflows our sadness and our depression. It is untold loss that leads to anxiety that perhaps more will be taken away. Loss upon loss leads to bitterness of what we do not have and jealousy towards the blessings bestowed on others. From our loss streams an intense current of fear, anger, and confusion. And if we don’t do something, I am fearful that we may drown.
What have you lost? And how have you dealt with your losses?
Many of us want to somehow deal with our losses, but are unsure how. It starts with learning how to grieve, but what does grief even look like, and how do we start?
Name Your Losses & Embrace the Intensity of What you Feel
The first step is to name our losses and embrace the intensity of what we feel. It requires us to honestly list what we have lost and acknowledge the intense undercurrent of emotions that accompany our truly changed and reduced lifestyles.
What have you lost? And what emotions flow from your loss?
Write them in a notebook, name them one by one. Sit with what you feel without trying to push it away. List the emotions that stem from your loss.
Anger? Rage? Bitterness? Sadness? Guilt? Shame? The less fear you have in the face of difficult emotions, the less power they hold over you. What do you feel?
While ignoring the emotional intensity of our grief is at times easier and less painful in the short-term, it will not work for long. The grief will well up inside. If we are not careful, our grief will turn to depression, thoughts of suicide, and dangerous behaviors that seek to numb the intensity of what we feel. If we try to push the pain of loss away, we will not like what we become.
We, instead, accept that it hurts and bear the brunt of the pain, in the moment, as it comes, instead of saving it for later. Grief walks straight through the valley of the shadow of death instead of seeking to skirt around the sides. We walk straight through our pain and straight through our loss, acknowledging that it is hard, feeling the devastation. We know that the straighter path through may be more difficult in the moment, but in the end, we will more quickly come out the other side.
Engage in Active Mourning that Makes Sense to You
When you allow yourself to feel the pain of loss, what makes sense to you in the moment? What does it make you want to do?
There is no right answer, and there is no one path. Cry and weep, loudly and proudly, if that feels right to you. Take your list of losses, rip it shreds, and throw it in the fire if that will help. Write a letter to your losses and your old self, to the person that you used to be. Listen to your music on loud, or cry through a sad movie. See a counselor. Speak your losses aloud to a person or to God. Tell the uncensored story of your loss, sharing your pain with those who might listen. Write a letter to the person, accident, doctor, or situation that hurt you. Send it, or don’t. Use your hands, a paintbrush, or clay to convey your loss through art. Construct a collage comparing who you used to be and who you are now. Be creative, get messy, think outside of the box. Consider, “what will work for me?”
Whatever you do, mourning is not passive, but active. It requires that we do something, not that we expect to simply feel better with the passing of time. Until we see grief as hard work, a task we must intentionally take on, we will make little progress in finding ourselves again.
Engage with Three Simple Questions
Much more could be said about grieving in the face of chronic pain. Whole books could be, and I am sure have been, written on this subject. But you only need to know the basics to move forward and begin to find healing.
It simply requires that you choose to move instead of remain still. It requires that you move through your loss and through your emotions instead of seeking to go around.
It really won’t help if you read this post, but don’t engage with the questions. You have to actually sit down, for at least 30 minutes and process what all of this means for you.
- What have you lost?
- What do you feel?
- What does active mourning look like for you in the face of your loss and emotional pain?