Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  -George Iles

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Grieving the Loss of a "Normal" Life

Growing up a tomboy, living in the Adirondacks of upstate NY, I was very active with outdoor activities...Camping, ice fishing, and skating topped my list of favorite things. I also enjoyed snowmobiles and hiking and riding my all-terrain 10-speed. Archery was a family sport for me and we shot and competed regularly. I became a nurse and dedicated much of my career to caring for the elderly. I found it very rewarding.

Several years ago while working in long term care, I suffered a lifting accident that changed my life forever. During a complicated surgery, I hemorrhaged - losing over 4000cc of blood my chart said. For a short while, I had no blood pressure and I required resuscitation. The doctors were wonderful though and knew what they had to do and they did it and I am here today.

For months following the surgery, I worked with therapists to regain the strength in my legs-- which loss much of their feeling as well as function. My initial endurance was 5-10 minutes before they would buckle. I suffered severe back spasms and my husband helped me overcome them by actually performing stretch exercises with my legs using his own weight to counteract my body's strength. After close to a year of extensive therapy, I progressed from a walker to a cane and thankfully today I am close to cane-free. When my back acts up, the legs still weaken so I still need and use it from time to time.

I remember what it was like when I realized my life would never be "normal" again. I would never do bedside nursing again. The doctor told me it would be too much of a risk to do any lifting, pushing or pulling over 10 lbs or remain on my legs for extensive periods of time. I was devistated. I had spent so much time and commitment learning and becoming a good nurse and now it was all over. My career as I saw it ended way too soon. Taking part in any activities that have risks of falls was now out. That took out skating and ice fishing for sure. I just sat there and thought about my life and realized that everything I enjoyed most was now off limits to me if I was going to protect my ability to walk. I felt I had been robbed and cheated out of what I enjoyed most and had worked so hard to achieve.

I also found the experiences of walking with assistive devices to be a humbling experience. I remember the challenges of going to a fast food restaurant and trying to balance a tray while walking with a walker or a cane. It was incredibly difficult and I gained a new appreciation for others in similar situations. I also struggled with my pride. In my eyes, good nurses were not supposed to get sick, hurt or require help. We are not supposed to walk with walkers or canes. We are the ones who are to help others. I know this is not an accurate portrayal of a nurse because nurses are people and people can and do get hurt, develop disease, and experience significant pain. But it was the image I had developed in my own mind and I had to accept the fact I was wrong.

I went through a period where I didn't want people I knew to see me like I was. I worked extremely hard to perfect my new walk and conceal the slight limp and the fact I would sometimes have to walk by swinging my leg from the hip when it failed to respond like it should. It is something I know I will have to deal with for the rest of my life but I am ok with it now.

Being an independent female much of my life, I think the hardest thing I had to accept was the fact I would need to rely on others to help with certain things I had ordinarily done by and for myself. I still struggle with that one and probably always will.

During these past few years, I have grown a lot from the experiences I have endured. I learned all too well what chronic pain is and how it can rob a person of their life if not treated and accepted. I can now look at the experiences and see a silver lining rather than a hole. I have permanent damage and deal with the complications that remain but I am very thankful for what I have and what I can continue to do.

I remember when the doctors said I would never be able to work full time again and I set out to prove them wrong. I started exploring my options based on my knowledge, experiences, interests, and talents. Soon I landed a job I could perform and enjoy. In fact, for the past several years, I have worked two jobs and managed to go to school as well. And I continue to enjoy what I am doing. I am no longer at the bedside but I feel what I do is meaningful.

I have learned a few things along my own life journey that I would like to share.

It is important for folks who suffer debilitating pain, disease or dysfunction to realize it is normal to grieve the loss of your former self. The lifestyle you knew may need to be changed in order to accommodate your limitations. Allow yourself to go through the grieving process.
It might be helpful to seek out a grief counselor if necessary and consider a pain management program that will not only teach you how to cope with chronic pain, but one that will also help you develop new goals and a new direction for your life.
Sometimes life is not fair but we have to live it. It is ok to seek out the help of others when learning to cope with loss and change.
It helps to try searching for the positives and not dwelling on the negatives.
It is important to be thankful for what you have and can do rather than what you have lost.
I have found learning to be creative and finding alternative approaches to some activities can be very helpful. Doing so may enable you to remain involved in favorite things even if it is in a limited or different capacity.
Avoid saying "I can't do it." or "It won't work." Unless you have tried it, you have no right to say that!
Surround yourself with positive people who can help you during the down times. There are bound to be times when you will feel down and discouraged. It is important to have a plan on how to handle these times before you actually find yourself in the midst of them. Make a little list of folks you can call on during these times.
It is ok to feel sorry for yourself a little once in a while. It is important however, to avoid doing so too long or too often. There is a strong connection between the mind and the body. Keeping your mind full of positive thoughts and emotions will help you feel better and cope more effectively with the challenges you face.

Everyone has their own life journey to walk. There is no perfectly right or wrong way to walk it. I feel it is best to seek and learn from others as well as ourself. Try to do the best we can--one day at a time.

By Indie Cooper-Guzman, RN

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