On Chronic Pain and How to Grieve (Part 2)


This is the second part of a short series on how to grieve when you have chronic pain.

To catch up, you can read On Chronic Pain and How to Grieve Part 1  here.

Sometimes we intuitively make changes in our lives to reflect our internal grieving process. But there are also times when we need to grieve, and just don’t know how. There are times when the losses and burdens are so deep that they feel unmovable. We don’t know how to start the process of moving forward. We wonder what grief practically looks like.

If you are in that place, it can help to choose from a variety of grieving practices and rituals that have helped other people and take the time to carry one or more of them out. It can feel strange and forced at first, but over time, what often happens is that you will begin to bring your own life and meaning to these rituals in a way that makes sense for you.

Grieving Through Speaking Your Story Aloud

One of the main ways we grieve is through speaking out story aloud. When I counsel individuals who are grieving, we spend the first few sessions simply talking about what has been lost and how that has affected them. At times, I can almost feel pieces of their burden lift from their shoulders as they share aloud what has been on their heart and mind.

We spend time remembering both the good memories and the bad memories. We speak aloud the past and the present feelings. And by speaking the story aloud, the thoughts and feelings that get so jumbled and confused when they are locked in our minds begin to unwind, become clearer, and feel less messy.

Besides seeing a counselor, there are many other ways of speaking your story aloud.

Speak aloud your grief to a friend. A friend can function in many of the same ways as a counselor. Often it feels strange to set aside time to really speak deeply about what we are going through with a friend. We are afraid it might inconvenience them or wonder if they will think that we are crazy. We feel like they don’t want to hear about it, but often they just don’t know that we need to share about it. They don’t want to add to our pain by bringing up the hard memories. Often it is the person who is grieving who needs to bring it up first, asking a friend if they would be willing to talk through the experience. One way you can grieve is by telling a friend the uncensored version of your story. 

Start a blog or share your story online through some other means. I believe that one of the reasons blogging is so therapeutic for many people is that telling the story of our chronic pain through writing and sharing is an act of grieving. We speak our losses aloud and feel affirmed when people respond with similar stories of grief and of loss. Telling our story through blogging can bring about a similar therapeutic release as you might feel in a counseling setting, as you tell the story of your pain to many listening ears.

Journal, write, & record for your eyes only. Sometimes there are parts of our grief that we don’t want to share. Not with our closest friend, not with an objective counselor, not with the whole world online. There are parts of our grief that are for our eyes only, things we feel like we can’t say to anyone. This is ok and normal, but can also become a problem when these thoughts stay jumbled and messy in our minds. These thoughts that you can’t say to anyone else in your life can be poured out on the pages of an empty journal.

Pray and speak to a God who sees and knows our grief. One of the most important ways that we can grieve is by speaking our grief aloud to a God who is present, knows, and understands. He gives us permission to fall at his feet claiming, “God this hurts!” Not only does he give us permission, but he invites us, asks us to come. There are parts of our lives, parts of our grief that no human can understand. There are thoughts that feel indescribable and parts of our experience that we cannot understand even for ourselves. And God invites us to come, laying all we think, feel, question, and believe at his feet.

Grieving Through Processing and Expressing Emotions 

Processing and expressing emotions often happens naturally as you tell your story of chronic pain. But, sometimes more is needed than talk therapy to process what you are feeling. Feelings are tricky and convoluted and often difficult to express in words.  Sometimes our internal turmoil transcends our daily language.

Create art. When our emotions are in a convoluted mess that we don’t even understand for ourselves, one of the best ways to express them is through making and consuming various forms of art. For me, writing feels like my form of art and creative expression. It is the way I sort through the mess of emotions in my mind, often writing things I didn’t even know I thought or felt until the words are already on paper. Any form of art can be used to process and express underlying, often subconscious, emotions. Painting, drawing, sculpting, music, coloring, crafts, sewing, knitting, embroidery, ceramics, graphic design…the options are endless. It matters little which form you use, as long as you enjoy it and use it to express what it going on in the deepest parts of you.

Consume art. In the same way, sometimes we need to consume art by finding pieces that speak to where we are when we are unable to find our own words. This can happen with all forms of art, but I believe music is a particularly salient example. I know that music is powerful, because even though I rarely listen music, there have been times when a specific song has described my life, and it becomes my anthem for that time period. I listen to it, and the song, either symbolically or literally, gives words to what I am experiencing. Words that I am too tired or emotional to find for myself.

Write out a list of your unwanted feelings and tear it up. Sometimes we need to process our feelings, and sometimes we want to move past them. To symbolically show your desire to move forward, write a list of all of our unwanted feelings, rip it up, and place in the trash. 

Read the Psalms. The Psalms are another place that can give words to our emotions and feelings when we are able to express them on our own. Throughout the Psalms, we find individuals calling out to God in the midst of their grief, anger and hurt. As you read them, begin to find the Psalms that make you think, “Me too!” Find the Psalms that you can place yourself in, the ones that describe your story and your feelings in this time. Use those Psalms that resonate with you to speak your grief aloud, to yourself and to God.

Grieving Through Acknowledging Your Former Self 

Remembering our former self and who we used to be is not easy, but it has its place and for some people can be an important part of the grieving process. For those who have had chronic pain since birth or childhood, this can take on the form of acknowledging who you might of been if chronic pain or illness had not been a part of your life.

Write a letter to your past self. A simple activity to help us acknowledge our past self is to write a letter to who we used to be before chronic pain.  What would you want to say to them? How does writing to this past version of yourself make you feel? Often this can bring about many unpleasant emotions of anger, bitterness, jealousy, and regret, as we think about all that we have lost and who we used to be. Feeling these emotions can make this activity seem counter intuitive, but bringing these emotions out so that they can be processed is an important part of moving forward.

Look at pictures and memories of what you use to do. Looking at pictures and reminders of past good and bad memories can serve the same function as writing a letter to your former self. 

Acknowledge anniversaries and milestones – both good and bad. Many individuals who are grieving greatly struggle on anniversaries of important events. It could be the anniversary of an accident, the anniversary of finally getting disability, the anniversary of a traumatic surgery, or any other number of positive and negative milestones. Acknowledging an anniversary does not have to mean that you are celebrating what happened. It means that you are recognizing that something important took place. Something huge happened on this day. Acknowledging it might mean going to a specific place or talking to a specific person. It might mean lighting a candle, buying a bottle of wine, watching a funny movie, or any number of activities. If it makes sense to you, then do it.

Grieving Through Symbolically Looking Forward  

At some point, we hopefully reach a place in our grief where we know that we are ready to move forward, but taking the first step feels impossible. Sometimes taking the first step forward can be done symbolically when we are not ready to do it emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Symbolic gestures can seem silly, but at times, they have great power to initiate forward momentum.

Write out a list of your losses and place it in your Bible. We know that God invites us to come and give him our burdens and rest, but what does this mean? It can feel very abstract and unrealistic. Symbolically giving your losses to God, asking him to take on the burden and the hurt for you, can help you move forward into knowing and understanding what it means and feels like to place our burdens on Jesus. Write out a list of your losses, hand them to God by placing them in your Bible. Let him be the holder of your loss when it becomes too much to bear. 

Give your grief to someone to keep for periods of time. Or place your grief in a place for safekeeping until you come back. For many people in many situations, the grief doesn’t go away. It will always be there in some form or another. But, we don’t have to carry it alone, and we are allowed to take breaks. Sometimes, we can symbolically leave our grief in a safe place or with a safe person, knowing that we will have to come back to it eventually, but perhaps we need a break for the moment.

Create a list, drawing, journal entry, or collage of the best possible version of the current you with chronic pain. Envision who you could be and convey that on paper or in some form. Imagine the best possible way to live out your life even in the midst of your losses.

Create a grieving ritual that makes sense to you. We all grieve differently, and what works for one person may not work for you. Think about how you could symbolically represent moving forward. What would that look like for you? What props or words or gestures might you use? Then carry it out, even if it sounds or feels silly.

I would love to hear your thoughts on grieving and what that looks like for you in your lives of pain or other losses. How do you grieve? What has worked for you?

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  1. A great list of possible approaches here.
    With chronic pain, I feel there can be a sense of hope that isn’t there after a death, which is so final. However, it seems important to acknowledge what has been lost in illness and not be dragged along by the ‘it could be worse brigade.’ Yes, it could be worse but it can feel overwelmingly awful and interminable at times.

  2. I love these ideas and will start practicing some tomorrow. Maybe we can do a spoonie grief swap? I will take yours losses and u can carry mine for a few days. I will then place both lists in my bible for safe keeping. Just a random thought. I like creating my own little rituals. It appeals to the ocd in me. -hugs, cb

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