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Chronic illness and the 5 Stages of Grief

Sometimes I wonder if I’m deceiving myself.  Then I think, maybe that’s what I need today.  Some sense of hope or maybe it is more a false sense of security, which I am well known for needing in my life.  It always comes back to control for me.  In truth, it’s been like that since I was a little girl.  I just didn’t recognize it at the time.  On days or sometimes weeks that I am enduring a flare up, I wake up, move slowly to the bathroom, look in the mirror and tell myself ‘this is just how you feel today and it won’t always feel like this.”  I take a deep breath and pause knowing good and well that’s a complete lie.  I’m living with a chronic illness.  There’s a reason it’s called Chronic you fool.  I can still hear those well intentioned words from the doctor “you will have to struggle and work 10 times harder than the average person to complete simple tasks that were once very easy for you.”  Don’t get me wrong I was not thrilled at all when I heard that.  It was painful and depressing, but there is not ONE moment that I believed that would be true for me. 

I have never let a barrier prevent me from achieving my goals and I was not about to start now.  It’s just not who I am at my core.  Most days I can’t even comprehend not completing my goals.  The thought actually never crossed my mind. That’s where that famous Type A personality comes into play.  I grew up believing I could not only reach for the stars, but also go beyond if I put my mind to it.  Challenge accepted!!  Tell me I can’t do something and I will show you how to get it done and in the most efficient way possible.  I pride myself in knowing that I am capable of doing whatever needs to be done.  And seriously what’s wrong with that?

For me, Yoga is about learning to consciously and intentionally move through our lives.  Ok, I feel like I do a pretty good job of that in my physical yoga practice.  And I feel very confident that as a teacher I am passing this message to my students (in class).  This includes breathing (pranayama) and movement (asana).  It’s the rest of my life that I’m not doing so great at.  I am all for cutting ourselves some slack and recognizing what we are doing well, but sometimes we have to be honest when those tools aren’t quite transferring seamlessly into our daily lives.  My yoga practice didn’t begin like this at all.  I liked movement and dancing.  So it seemed like a natural progression for me.  I focused solely on the physical aspects (stretching, strengthening, improving balance). That breathing thing was an afterthought…until it wasn’t. I didn’t understand the use of slowing down or taking a long Savasana (the final relaxation pose at the end of class). Little did I know, Savasana and breathing practices are what I needed most. 

My yoga practice soon evolved from power yoga to gentle restorative and therapeutic movements.  That’s one thing I can thank Endometriosis for. It has taught me to slow down in life and yoga.  Once I noticed the calming benefits of stillness, breathing practices and subtle movements the more I craved a practice that met my needs.  This is a great opportunity to continuously adapt a yoga practice to where I am in the moment.  And trust me, I relay that message to my students like a broken record.  Mainly because I think it allows each person to find what complements their intentions, rather than providing a one size fits all yoga class.  If your intention is to “workout/exercise” that’s fine, but if you are seeking ways to calm and replenish your nervous system, then focusing on breath centered practices is the best way to support your mind and body.  I notice more ease physically and emotionally when I move and breathe with intention. Slowing down allows me the time to notice my breathing patterns and how that affects the pain, discomfort and stress I endure.  Understanding my breathing patterns during times of stress or pain provides insight into how I can better support my nervous system.  When we are experiencing stress, whether physical or emotional, you might notice that our breathing becomes short, rapid and remains solely in the chest.  Learning to take slow, deep belly breaths will bring our nervous system into the Rest and Digest (Parasympathetic) state.  Living with a chronic disease places us in the Sympathetic (Go Mode) aspect of the nervous system.  Staying in "Go Mode" keeps our mind and body in a stressful place.  Essentially how we breathe affects our stress and stress affects our breathing.  Learning to integrate breathing practices can provide an additional tool to support a chronic condition.

I’ve spent a little over a year in weekly talk therapy sessions examining and making peace with the grief from living with a 12-year chronic illness and simultaneous loss of my father to cancer.  Not to mention the abrupt life changes that were happening (secondary in my mind once you truly know the loss of a parent and loss of control over a body you thought belonged to you).  I recently discovered that having a chronic illness means you ebb and flow through the stages of grief on a daily basis.  Full disclosure, change is so hard for me that the stages of grief are a normal course of my day.  I never really adapted well to anything that wasn’t part of my PLAN!  This new information got me thinking what this looks like when you are living with and managing a chronic illness. 

My story goes a little something like this…

Denial…There’s no way this is how my day is going.  I did everything right over the last few days.  Why isn’t my body agreeing with my mind?  I have things I need to do today…work, exercise, teach a class, spend time with family and play with my dog. This is in addition to the numerous other small daily tasks in between.  Ugh! I kept my stress down, ate small portions, kept the gluten and dairy out, went to bed at a decent time and drank lots of water.  The spoon theory reigns again…I will leave that for another day.

Anger…Tears or screaming, depending on the day.  The pelvic, back pain, fatigue and bloating are unbearable today.  And it’s only 6:30 am. I can’t even put clothes on without feeling miserable. It hurts to move, bend or walk.  This is unfair and completely unacceptable!  I do everything I am supposed to in an effort to support my body. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a “normal’ female.  I just can’t win no matter how hard I try.  I am a good person and always make it a habit to do my best in life.  Am I being punished? It’s devastating to look at other women and hear them celebrate being a female.  I go through the stages of pregnancy, menopause and menstruation all in one day.  Yes, a real gift. Enter Endo belly and inflammation! 

Bargaining…If I just get through today and put a smile on my face, I will feel better tomorrow.  I won’t overreact or stress about the small or even big things if the pain just subsides a little.  I’ve dealt with worse and I am not a quitter. 

Depression…. Why would I even continue with the rest of my day?  I might as well just go back to sleep and pretend I never woke up. The day is already ruined!  Just wake me when I have a body that actually likes me and wants to cooperate.

“Pull it together Kimberly!  This is not the person you want to be” In this moment, I am operating in the 5th stage of grief.

Acceptance.  So today, my Yoga practice is playing Lost Secrets (Floating Lights/Relaxation music) on repeat, drinking my peppermint tea, cancelling the Barre class I love to take and reminding myself I’m not a complete failure if my day doesn’t turn out the way I originally envisioned. 


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