Chronic Illness and Loss - Retirement Net by Mary J. Yerkes

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Chronic Illness and Loss

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You can’t always prevent loss—but you can choose how to respond to it.

Posted August 5, 2011

“I have your MRI results,” said Dr. Price, my rheumatologist.

I was in the midst of a strategic planning meeting at the office, but I quickly stepped out into the hall to take the call in private. Although I had been having back pain for the last three weeks, I wasn’t concerned. A recent bone density scan revealed I had the spine of a 20-year-old, which left me completely unprepared for what followed.

“You have not one but three compression fractures to your thoracic spine.”

Practically, that meant no more horseback riding—one of the few remaining and greatest joys of my life. I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach.

If I knew anything from dealing with past losses, it was this—recovery would be a process.

In her book Living through Personal Crisis, Ann Kaiser Stearns describes the process of recovery in the early stages of grief:

“Recovery from loss is like having to get off the main highway every so many miles because the direct route is under reconstruction. The road signs reroute you through little towns you hadn’t expected to visit and over bumpy roads you hadn’t wanted to bounce around on. You are basically traveling in the appropriate direction. On the map, however, the course you are following has the look of shark’s teeth instead of a straight line. Although you are gradually getting there, you sometimes doubt that you will ever meet up with the finished highway.”

I’ve walked through this process probably hundreds of times; and if you’re living with chronic illness, you probably have too. While it never gets easier, there are things that you can do to move through the recovery process in a healthy way.

Tips for Recovering from Loss

Say goodbye. We must recognize our loss and acknowledge that life will be different going forward. Failure to acknowledge our losses can lead to grief that is complicated by adjustment disorders, including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and more. Sure it hurts when we lose something we love, but it can also be a catalyst for spiritual and emotional growth. As hard as it was, I have symbolically packed up my riding boots for good, although I still love watching the horses graze in rolling country fields. Horses continue to be part of the landscape of my life—just in a different way.

Choose well. We have a choice in our recovery. The changes brought about by our loss can be either positive or negative.

One of my favorite quotes of all times comes from Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Holocaust survivor Dr. Victor Frankl:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We can choose to become bitter about our losses, or we can choose to become better despite them. We can choose to focus on what we can’t do, or we can look for new opportunities to use the gifts and abilities that remain. Even when dreams die, we can choose to move toward life. New interests, friendships, and projects can breathe life into our weary souls. So, choose well.

Reinvest in new dreams and relationships. After you’ve given yourself sufficient time to grieve, reinvest in new projects and relationships. I’ve been thinking about refreshing my writer’s website for some time, but I kept putting it on the backburner. Now that I’ve had some time and finances free up, I’ve contracted a web design firm to give my site a facelift. And I’ve recently heard from a publisher looking for a writer for a new book. She asked me to submit some samples to help her determine if I’m the right writer for the project. I’ll know something by the end of the month. Even if I don’t get the job, I’ve begun to dream about new possibilities and platforms for my writing. That alone is a gift.

Plan ahead to prepare for transition and loss. Life with chronic illness is a series of losses. And while we can never fully anticipate all that lies ahead, life is full of predictable transitions. Take charge of the potential loss in advance so you can continue on with life. I live with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease marked by pain, inflammation, and limited mobility. Early in the disease, I changed career course, stepping down from a high-stress job that required travel and moving to a job with fewer hours and greater flexibility. I’ve adjusted my lifestyle and my home so the years ahead will be easier as my disease progresses.

Loss is an inevitable part of life. But whether we profit from it or allow it to crush us depends on our response.

The choice is yours.

Mary Yerkes is an author, speaker, and chronic illness coach who fosters spiritual and personal transformation in people's lives, especially those living with chronic pain and disease. Like many of her clients, she lives with multiple chronic illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis. She is the Chronic Illness Expert for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women. Visit Mary online at


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