After my diagnosis, it took time to accept my new life. But I still struggled to understand its meaning. The sixth stage of grief helped me find meaning.
Before my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis, I was in pain and struggling to understand my symptoms, but I always had hope for tomorrow. I hoped that the pain might suddenly disappear or that a cure was just around the corner.
There was always a new day, a new sunrise, and a new opportunity to wake up without any symptoms.
The day I was diagnosed, I left the medical office and sat in my car while I cried. I cried because the diagnosis made the illness, pain, and physical debility feel permanent and real. I instantly knew my life was going to change forever.
I was starting to grieve the loss of the life I used to have and the life I was expecting to have in the future. My outlook on the future changed dramatically, and it was harder to stay hopeful and optimistic.
According to Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief. These include “denial,” “anger,” “bargaining,” “depression,” and “acceptance.” These are not always experienced in order, and some stages may even be skipped, revisited, or occupied for an extended period of time.
After being diagnosed with a chronic illness, I cycled through these stages of grief. I spent a lot of time in “denial,” completely skipped “bargaining,” and then remained in “depression” for a long period, with a touch of “anger” sprinkled in there along the way.
David Kessler, grief expert and co-author with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of “On Grief and Giving,” recently described a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. This stage transforms one’s grief into closure after a loss. This is a stage where peace and hope can be experienced. This can even be a stage where a new direction is found, and you might find new purpose and meaning in your life.
Since writing about grieving my former self, I learned about this sixth stage of grief. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Though I had come to accept my diagnosis and be joyful, I don’t think I had fully appreciated the new meaning in my life.
The truth is, this new meaning was staring me right in the face, but I was blind to it. I only focused on what I had lost and not what I had gained. So, I’ve been focusing on this next step, the sixth stage of grief — or what I like to call “the sixth stage after grief.”
Once I’d cycled through the five stages of grief a few times over, I made a conscious effort to find the meaning and purpose in my life.
I am a family nurse practitioner, and my style of practicing medicine changed after I was diagnosed with a chronic illness.
I realized just how much my interactions with patients can impact their lives. I became more aware of my position and made conscious efforts to listen more closely to patients and respect their requests for additional testing. I have also tried to find new ways of showing empathy and kindness — ways that I didn’t know were important until my own diagnosis.
I’ve always wanted to help others, but since my diagnosis, I feel I can offer more. I feel connected with patients in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Before getting a diagnosis, I was confused, scared, and misdirected more times than I can even count, and I work in healthcare. I couldn’t even imagine how it would feel to work outside of healthcare and be on a similar journey.
I started a local, in-person support group for women with RA to provide guidance and support.
This group was a huge success. We not only had fun together, but we bonded and made a safe space that was judgment-free and full of love, kindness, and support.
I’ve found new meaning in my work at home, too.
The dishes in the sink and the laundry waiting to be folded simply aren’t a priority anymore. Of course, they get done, but I don’t let them bog me down or occupy space in my mind.
Time with my spouse, children, and extended family has become my priority, and it has so much more meaning since my diagnosis.
Before my diagnosis, I would minimize the need for sleep. I would work long hours, buy cheap sheets, and never allow myself to fully relax.
Now, I not only allow sleep, but I prioritize it. I buy high end bedding and splurge on a new mattress every few years. If you have a chronic condition, you know just how embedded fatigue can become. I now sleep knowing that it has meaning in my life, not only to help my condition but to give myself the rest I deserve.
The most unexpected place I have found new meaning and purpose is romance.
Intimacy with my spouse is so much better. We have had a deeper connection since my diagnosis, and the required creativity to accommodate chronic pain in the bedroom has even brought some fun and excitement back into our marriage. It really is like getting to know each other all over again.
After being diagnosed, I was no longer able to play golf, soccer, or dance. I wasn’t excited to try new hobbies, but much to my dismay, I actually liked some of them. Gardening and yoga have been far more fulfilling than I had ever expected. These have given me new hope for my body and its capabilities.
I have actually found exercise and movement to be more rewarding despite some changes in my body’s capabilities. I see new beauty in the outdoors, and I appreciate what my body can do so much more.
I discovered a new and rewarding role as an educator and writer, too. Having the opportunity to write and share my stories about living with a chronic condition has given me so much hope.
When you are diagnosed with a chronic condition, it’s normal to experience grief. The loss of your life as you know it, as well as the anticipated loss of what you were expecting in your future, can be difficult to cope with.
I was devastated for many years, cycling through the five stages of grief, firmly anchored in a state of depression for long periods of time.
Before reading about the sixth stage of grief, I found it hard to be optimistic about the future. I had lost perspective about the meaning of my life with a chronic condition. The sixth stage made me find this perspective.
I made a conscious effort to identify and list activities that brought me joy and purpose. This has made me appreciate the meaning of my life that was there all along.
Medically reviewed on November 02, 2023
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