You’re not who you once were, but you’re stronger than you think. The five-stage approach to coping with the new you with chronic illness

One of the hardest things about chronic illness is accepting that your life is different now. 

You may have heard of the five stages of grief. It was developed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Although many have tried, no one has come up with a better system for taking people through the grieving process.

Kubler-Ross was talking about death. But her five stages apply to chronic illness just as well.

You may think that you can get around having to grieve. You can’t. To move forward, you have to go through the process of letting go of the old you and embracing who you’re becoming.

Trying to avoid this will make things harder, not easier. To (loosely) quote Robert Frost, “the only way out is through.”

Think of the five stages as a roadmap so you know where you’re going and what to expect each step of the way. While you might end up circling around and repeating stages, you’re can identify each one while you’re in it. 

Here are the five stages and how you can use them to deal with your new life:

  1. Denial

We often think of denial as something negative. But denial is healthy. If we have a radical change, we can’t be expected to deal with the whole thing all at once. We need to take it in slowly.

We may have to repeat this stage over time. For example, I was in an accident. At first, I was in denial about how disabling it was. Then later, after I was able to recover some functionality, I learned that I was up against a longer-term problem, autoimmune disease. So once again I went into denial about that. 

2. Anger

Many of us have been taught that anger is bad and something to avoid. This is especially true for women. We’re never supposed to shake our fists at the sky, or ask “why me?“

But if you think about it, what could be more natural than to be angry when something goes wrong in our lives? If we’re not angry, that probably means we’re still in the denial phase. By letting it in, we’re moving forward. 

Let yourself be as angry as you need to be. Cry, punch the wall, scream into a pillow. Don’t expect it to go away all at once. You might feel like you’re past it, only to have it erupt again. But that’s okay. It’s natural. And it will pass.

3. Bargaining 

Ever find yourself thinking, “If only I hadn’t…(gotten that fever, taken that car ride, etc. etc.) this never would’ve happened to me”? That’s bargaining in a nutshell. The “if only” is our way of saying we want to undo the past. 

Another way we bargain is by asking God, the universe, or some other higher power to change things back to how they were before. We often make promises in exchange for this. We might say, “If you give me my health back, I’ll never take it for granted again.”

Bargaining can be directed at others as well. Every time we blame someone or something for what happened, this is a form of bargaining. If we think to ourselves something like “this never would’ve happened if she hadn’t been driving,” we’re bargaining.

In short, bargaining is our mind trying to regain control. We can’t accept how things are, so we come up with scenarios that put things back how we want them. Of course, we can’t do that. But it’s difficult if not impossible to stop ourselves. So don’t try to do that. Trust that these thoughts will settle down.

4. Depression

Boy does depression get a bad rap. No matter why we’re depressed, we’re told it’s unhealthy. We need medication, therapy, and anything else that will make it go away.

Depression can hang on for a long time. Some people need support to get through it, and that’s fine. But if you’re grieving, you need to go through this phase. If you medicate it away, you could end up stuck in it for years.

No one wants to be depressed. I hate it. I was never depressed before my accident. I still try to jolly myself out of it. But it has to happen.

Remind yourself that in this context, if you’re feeling depressed, it’s a good sign. It means you’re moving towards the final stage of your grieving process. 

5. Acceptance 

This stage is the one that brings the most peace of mind. We might not be able to feel it all the time. But we know we’re there when on some gut level we know we’re not fighting it anymore.

This doesn’t mean we won’t keep pursuing treatments. Just the opposite—we’ll have more energy to try out new possibilities. But we do so in a way that’s not desperate. We don’t look to doctors or other practitioners as if they’re saviors.

We’re living our lives as best we can, taking it day by day. We’re also recognizing that as hard as it is, these are the cards we’ve been dealt. We have to make the most of our lives in the face of what’s happened. 

Acceptance is the final stage, but it’s a springboard for many other things. Once we have accepted our fate, we can build a new life that fits where we are. 

We may discover new gifts and talents we didn’t know we had. Build connections we wouldn’t have before. All kinds of positive things can happen. 

Don’t fight this. Kubler-Ross believed these five stages are biological. They’re built into what we are as human beings. Let them unfold without judging yourself.


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