managing-grief-chronic-illness

Managing Grief with Chronic Illness

“I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”

Keanu Reeves, on what happens after death

Over the past two weeks, I’ve faced an emotion I haven’t dealt with in years. I’ve written about grief before, in the context of coping with a chronic illness diagnosis, but I haven’t reflected on physically losing someone. Relationships come and go, and we mourn losing our connection to a friend, but when death enters the picture, there is a finality to the whole situation we cannot come back. Living with a chronic illness means a strong emotional episode can trigger an exacerbation. That can set us back days, weeks, or even months.

So how do we manage an emotion like grief? 

It’s difficult, because there’s no right way for each person. There are healthy ways to manage grief and unhealthy ways. With a chronic illness, we must find the healthiest way to manage our grief to protect our wellbeing. What shape that takes depend on ourselves.

My Grief

For now, no one is dead in my life. But I have the opportunity to prepare for the death of a loved one. Death can surprise us, or we can have the grace of a timeline. My cat, Lytton, is undergoing some major health concerns. I’ve had Lytton for over ten years, and he’s a significant presence in my life. While he is eleven, I always assumed I would have more time with him.

With each emergency visit and specialist conversation, we are left with the feeling that the end is coming sooner than expected.

Knowing that one of my sources of emotional comfort and napping buddy may soon pass has thrown me headlong into the grieving cycle. I’ve had to reassess priorities and recognize the impact grief will have on my MS if I am not careful.

What follows are some thoughts I’ve had surrounding death and loss. 

Another Thing Chronic Illness Takes…

Chronic illness takes away our ability to grieve in the manner we wish. We can grieve however we want, without regard to our disease, absolutely. But if we have people who depend on us, or we don’t want to deal with a problematic exacerbation, we must keep one eye open to our health.

We must contain and manage our grief.

I am not suggesting “suck it up” or “get over it,” attitudes. No, grieve as long as needed in the necessary form. But be aware of what you are doing and how it might impact your health. Grief is stressful, and if we allow that stress to overwhelm us, we can make ourselves sick.

In the most profound moments of grief, we often do not care about our health. Nothing matters except the loss. Despite how it feels, the intensest moments of pain will pass, and our lives will return to the new normal without the individual. Should we stop taking care of ourselves during our period of grieving, and that helps intensify an exacerbation, the effects of the flare-up may be lifelong. 

To reframe what I mean through an example (this is for illustrative purposes, it hasn’t happened): I allow myself to get so worked up over Lytton’s death that I get an exacerbation. This leads me to lose function of my leg due to numbness, and I must be hospitalized for intervenous steroids. While I have Relapse-Remitting MS, it doesn’t guarantee my leg functionality goes back to 100%. Instead, I leave the hospital with a permanent 80% functionality of that leg. I can no longer achieve the specific goals I had for myself, and I must adapt my life to a new normal. 

I may grieve for Lytton’s death over several years, but I potentially have at least thirty more years to go beyond that. For the few months of intense emotional grief, by not taking preventative measures to balance my health and despair, I’ve impacted the rest of my life. Additionally, Jai loses his mother while I am in the hospital, and I’ve permanently reduced my ability to interact with him. 

I will probably feel guilty for not taking care of myself, needing to be hospitalized, and the impact of the exacerbation on my overall health. All three stemming from a situation where I could have prevented the flare-up through self-care.

Note: with autoimmune/chronic illness, we cannot prevent our flare-ups. They will happen when they happen. We can, however, take steps to minimize them from occurring. It’s remembering to take these steps while grieving to help prevent or lessen the impact of an exacerbation.

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Furbaby Love

For the month of November, I am taking each day to highlight some element in my life that I want to express my gratitude. This could be something deeply personal or just a passing appreciation for something more superficial. 


Before Ash and I had Jai, we adopted three cats.

And we were, and to a lesser extent still are, crazy cat parents. Our cats are spoiled. They have multiple beds (some are heated) around the house, two big kitty towers, a box filled with toys, a drawer filled with treats, and wet food for all their meals.

They are well-cared for and loved by us, with Jai learning how to respect animals and be gentle towards them.

Furbabies for many, as was the case for us, are the first and sometimes the only children for couples. Two were present for our wedding, and all three were there during my diagnosis. They were there when I went into labor and will hopefully be with us for a while longer for some more milestones.

Because they were there for major events in our relationship they are huge emotional supports for Ash and myself. For that, I am grateful to be able to share my life with them and all they do for us as devoted companion animals.

I am especially grateful for Lytton and all the love and affection he gave me from day one.

Little Ball of Love

Lytton is my cat. He’s a beautiful, silky Bombay rescue that has a smart aleck attitude with an emphasis on smart. Sure, I am slightly biased, but he really is an awesome cat. We went into the rescue and Lytton picked me instantly. I was looking at a couple other cats that were available for adoption, but he kept reaching for me and looking for my attention.

How could I say no? We ended up adopting him with his foster brother, Gerard.

Wherever I go in the house Lytton has to follow me. Many nights he sleeps on my pillow or between Ash and myself. Recently he’s taken to nipping Ash if he gets too close to me in bed. If I go away for a couple of days he acts mad with me, but within several hours he won’t leave me alone, nuzzling me until I give him some scratches and my lap.

Most endearing is he can pick up emotional states and will provide comfort when a person (not just myself) feels low. We’ve had several guests come over and Lytton revealed that they are going through something by way of pestering them for attention.

Five years ago, while I was dealing with trying to figure out what was going on with me and immediately after my diagnosis, Lytton filled in where Ash could not emotionally and physically. This is to say that Ash would be at work and I would be at home resting, Lytton would function as an unofficial emotional support animal for me. If I needed to cry in frustration or have a warm body lying next to me while I slept, Lytton was there until Ash got home.

And Baby Makes Six

Lytton has effectively taken on the role as a second father for Jai. When I was nursing Jai he would curl up alongside Jai as a barrier to prevent rolling. I don’t believe this was his intention, I think it had everything to be close to the little heater newborns are, but it was a sweet gesture.

When Jai wants alone time in his room, Lytton will perch on the rocker almost as if he’s watching over Jai. Lytton truly seems invested in Jai’s wellbeing which makes sense considering he never left my side while I was pregnant. Whenever I was home, Lytton was my shadow. I have many pictures of him using my belly as a pillow or reaching his paw out to touch me while we tried to nap.

When I was in early labor, Lytton plopped himself on my lap and slept with his head on my belly and purred until I had to change positions. He was a wonderful comfort to me and I think even for Jai in those moments (I can imagine the vibrations from purring was soothing immediately after a contraction).

lyttonlove

Lytton while I was in early labor.

A Lifetime of Friendship & Comfort

Having the cats there for me during the diagnosis, pregnancy, labor, and even today really helps keep my stress levels down. Lytton or Christopher will curl alongside me on the couch or the bed and even if we aren’t touching, their presence brings a lot of comfort to me.

With my MS, having that emotional support for my stress is extremely important. It wasn’t until I started being more mindful of the connection between stress-levels and flare-ups that I recognized the importance of our furbabies. I started taking the time to sit, stroke, and enjoy my time with them more than before as a means to calm down.

Now, when it’s time for my afternoon nap, I call out to Lytton to let him know I am heading upstairs for a nap. Sometimes he follows and on the times he does not, I wake up with him alongside me in some fashion.

While I know Lytton, Gerard, and Christopher’s time with us are short, I know that they provided us with a lifetime of love and memories. I think we will always have a furbaby in the home with us, whether it’s feline or canine, because of the comfort they provide us. I also know that having a companion animal helps children learn compassion, something that I want to teach Jai. For all that they do, even if it’s nothing but be available for a quick scratch, I am grateful for our furbabies.

Do you have any furbabies that help care for you in little, endearing ways? How have they provided comfort in your life? Leave your stories in the comments.


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