Grieve Your Loved One’s Chronic Illness Without Making them Feel Guilty
Chronic illnesses bring on many changes and stress in your relationships, especially when it’s time to have important conversations. But how can you be honest about your feelings without causing a strain in your relationship and making them feel bad? Here are six ways to grieve your loved one’s chronic illness without making them feel guilty.
#1. Grieve their Chronic Illness with Self-Compassion
From doctors appointments to medical plans and lifestyle changes, not much time is usually focused on you initially after your loved one is diagnosed with a chronic illness. This major shift in priorities brings feelings of grief (anger, sadness, regret, worry) when you’re trying to support them and consider your own needs at the same time.
Before holding yourself to super high expectations to have it all figured out (and not have any emotional reactions), give yourself some grace. This is where self-compassion comes in. Yes, self-compassion.
Throughout your loved one’s journey with a chronic health condition, you will begin to realize (if you haven’t already) that it’s freaking hard. You won’t have all the answers to every issue, say the “right” things, or be able to take their pain and discomfort away. That’s hard to witness and live with.
But you have more power to support yourself with how all of this is affecting you, being gentle with yourself and making better on mistakes you experience along the way. Give yourself permission to let those expectations go and focus on showing up for yourself and your chronically ill loved one the best way you can.
Self-Compassion Tip #1 – Notice what has changed for you
Yes, your loved one has been diagnosed with a chronic health condition, but their life is not the only one changing. Your life is changing, too, and that deserves some attention.
Here are some ways that your life can change directly and indirectly as a result of your loved one’s health condition:
- Spending less time with your loved one
- Plans are canceled more often when they don’t feel well
- You take on more responsibilities to support them
- Your chronically ill loved one doesn’t seem like themselves anymore
- Your social life has taken a dive, and you’ve spent less time out with friends as you care for your loved one
- Less intimacy (for partners or spouses)
- Less income in the household (if your loved one discontinued work or decreased hours)
These changes can really take a toll on you emotionally and make you question how your life will turn out. Allow yourself to be present with what has changed for you so that you can determine what is needed to move forward. Not all of these changes have to be permanent, but they cannot be addressed until you are honest with yourself about how everything is affecting you.
It’s okay to notice how much you miss spending time with your loved one. It’s even okay to want to focus more on yourself at times. You’re human, and that comes with the territory. However, when you notice these feelings, how can you respond to it with self-compassion?
Self-Compassion Tip #2 – Allow Yourself to Grieve without Judgment
You are allowed to feel all that comes up when thinking about how your loved one’s chronic illness is changing your life. And I say this with compassion as a chronically ill mental health therapist. It’s really not a bad thing to feel upset or have feelings. Quite frankly, you might notice a range of intense emotions that are hard to ignore, including anger (the most common grief response), shock, sadness, regret and helplessness. Some common thoughts are that “life is unfair” and that you “wish things could go back to normal.”
These thoughts and feelings don’t make you a bad person. This is part of the chronic illness grieving process called Bargaining, Pleading and Despair. During this stage of grief, you think back to things that you feel could have been handled differently (i.e., reminding your loved one to drink water, calling them more so they don’t feel sad, encouraging them to exercise). The list goes on with how many things you wish you could’ve done differently.
But be mindful that your loved one’s illness is not your fault. I mean, truthfully, it isn’t anyone’s fault. And even if it was someone’s fault, focusing on who to blame doesn’t help anyone moving forward. Instead it creates more stress and wreaks havoc on your relationship with them.
Self-judgment has the power to keep you in a dark place and make your grief process harder to get through. Instead, remind yourself every day of the steps you’ve taken to care for yourself and your chronically ill loved one. Reassure yourself that you’re doing that best you can, and consider ways you can continue doing that in good faith – not judgment. Most importantly, back those thoughts up with action.
#2. Make Adjustments that Support Your Grief Needs
As you observe your feelings, you may notice certain things that you cannot change. Grieve those parts of your life while you consider any unmet needs that are in your power to resolve right now. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I need to feel supported right now?
- Do I need some down time or someone to talk to?
- Are there errands I need to run?
- Is there someone to help take some things off of my plate right now?
- Are there any appointments I need to schedule for myself?
It’s not easy to redirect the focus to yourself when your chronically loved one is having a difficult time with their health. But prioritizing self-care along the way is vital in order for you to be the best support for them. In fact, caregivers and loved ones are at higher risk of mental and physical illnesses when time is not dedicated to their own needs.
I’m not talking about spa treatments and lavish vacations type of self-care (although they are nice to have). Instead, this specific self-care is a mindset change allowing you to consider your needs and make the adjustments necessary to meet them. Although you may have thoughts that you are being selfish and unreasonable, you are actually showing yourself compassion.
Your loved one will be making several adjustments relating to their chronic illness, and your own flexibility with yourself will support your mental and physical health while you figure things out.
Ask for Help as You Explore Your Grief
Chronic health conditions often lead people to feel like they’re on an island by yourself for many reasons. It makes people feel out of touch with everyone else around you, because other people don’t understand what it’s like (for you or your chronically ill loved one). You might even be tempted to hide what you’re feeling and appear that nothing is wrong, even when you know that you’re not okay.
This is a common response when feeling overwhelmed with the reality of your loved one’s chronic illness. Although it’s hard to be vulnerable sometimes, letting someone know that you need help can make grieving easier for you. In this case, honesty is better than silence.
Confirm your own needs and ask for help meeting them if you cannot do it alone. Consider who can help you meet those needs with care and support. I know that it can be hard talking about your loved one’s chronic illness, but it can be a rewarding and positive experience when the right people are chosen to have the conversation.
Here are some examples of how others can help you:
- Request time off with your employer.
- Ask a loved one to stop by and help with chores around the house.
- Hire a babysitter to watch the kids.
- Invite a friend over or meet for coffee.
- Call a friend and talk about your feelings
- Schedule a session with a mental health professional or clergy.
No one is meant to walk this chronic illness journey alone. If not careful, choosing silence instead of support puts you in a lonely place, increasing the risk for more physical and mental illness. Give yourself permission for others to carry the load with you, and your life will be enhanced tremendously.
Forcing yourself to do it all and carry the grief alone also puts you at more risk of unloading on your chronically ill loved one, causing them more stress and straining your relationship. The cycle can become more difficult when you don’t have someone else to help you through it. Do yourself a favor and connect with other people who can be there for you.
#3. Express Your Grief Without Blaming Your Loved One
Have you ever noticed that your conversations with your chronically ill loved one turn into arguments or disagreements? Perhaps they feel like you’re blaming them when talking about what has changed for you?
I’ve worked with my fair share of families who are not supportive of their chronically ill loved one. And that can open a huge can of worms, isolating their loved one and making them feel emotionally unsafe. However, it can also be scary to have important conversations about your loved one’s health even when you have the best intentions.
Your loved one needs to understand how you feel about what’s happening with their health within reason, and how you express those feelings makes a huge difference in how it’s received. Acknowledge that you see how their health affects them as you share your own truth. This helps them feel seen and valued as you talk about something so personal and challenging for you.
Here are some examples of expressing your feelings without blame:
- “I’m disappointed that we’re not able to go out tonight, but I understand that you need your rest.”
- “I really miss our time together. Maybe there’s another way that we can connect while you recover?”
- “I could use some fresh air. Is there anything you’d like me to bring you when I return?”
- “It’s really hard for me because I don’t understand what’s happening with your health right now. Is there a place I could learn more about what’s happening with you as you recover?”
- “I know you haven’t been feeling well, and it makes you feel cranky sometimes. But it’s really hard for me to help you when you yell at me. Can we talk more when you’re calm?”
Be open about how the circumstance is affecting you and gently consider how you and your loved one can move forward together.
#4. Observe Your Shared Feelings of Grief
It’s not uncommon for family members to feel stuck in their own grief about their loved one’s health, meanwhile not realizing that their chronically ill loved one feels exactly the same way.
For example, it can be very upsetting when your chronically ill loved one cancels plans. Be mindful that your loved one who canceled the plans are also feeling immense disappointment and upset with themself and their body, because it’s a reminder of their current limitations and all that has changed. They often feel that they are letting their loved ones down, tanking their feelings of self-worth.
Moments like these are real, and they can be upsetting for everyone involved. Take some time to notice how both of you share those feelings and use that as a way to connect without blaming anyone for what has changed. Remember that you are experiencing grief about their chronic health condition together.
These feelings of grief can be what brings you together instead of what tears you apart.
#5. Explore Healthy Outlets to Support Your Grief
The grief process is complicated, and it can get confusing to figure out who to talk with about your feelings and needs. Yes, it can be helpful to talk with your chronically ill loved one about your feelings of grief. But sometimes, it is more appropriate to express those thoughts and feelings with someone else.
Hear me out…
I’m in no way throwing shade towards your chronically old loved one, but here are the hard facts. They are managing their own feelings and health symptoms, which is a full-time job with no time off. That comes with a roller-coaster of emotions and challenges on a daily basis. And because of that, they may not always be available to carry your feelings. It may be too much for them, and you have to be okay with that.
Understand that you are not alone with your feelings when your chronically ill loved one is unable to support you at the moment. Use this opportunity to explore other supportive outlets to meet your needs.
Also, consider that you will not always be the best person for your loved one to talk with about their own chronic illness related grief. The both of you need your own healthy outlets to support your grief.
Exploring individual and social outlets whether you are a partner, spouse or friend is an important aspect of self-care. Who else can be a helpful listener without judgment? How else can you express your thoughts and feelings independently (i.e., meditation, journaling, art, prayer, exercise, exploring in nature)?
Give yourself permission to excuse yourself from this responsibility so that other people can step in. Being honest with yourself about this reality supports your own grief process and is a major way to support your chronically ill loved one.
#6. Speak with a Chronic Illness Therapist
A mental health professional helps you find a balance with life stress and the emotions that the chronic illness journey brings on. It’s no question that you will likely experience really tough moments while supporting your chronically ill loved one, because the journey is full of highs and lows.
Working with a therapist that specializes in supporting those who live with chronic illness helps you learn how to respond compassionately with yourself on those hard days, while helping you embrace and be present on the easier ones. Your sessions help you come to terms with your own grief relating to your loved one’s chronic health condition.
You transition from talking about your feelings to actively meeting your needs, learning to cope with the stress and challenges that come when supporting a chronically ill loved one. This also gives you a supportive space to talk with your chronically ill loved one if you feel uncomfortable having specific conversations alone. This is a space that encourages both of you to work together through your grief, and your therapist can show you how to do that.
Next Steps for Chronic Illness Grief Support
I help individuals, families and groups who are grieving life changes that come with chronic illnesses and chronic pain. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you find meaning in your life while making sense of all the complicated feelings that come with a health condition. Although the journey with a chronic illness is hard, therapy can make it more bearable by providing skills and a supportive place to turn on the harder days.
You can schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.