The relationship between grief, emotion and chronic illness can be immediate and direct. Indeed, strong emotions can wreak havoc on autoimmune disorders and chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, where stress triggers a flare up in symptoms. Learning to ride these strong emotions instead of resisting them can help reduce the negative impact on your health.
A Personal Example
We lost our sweet girl cat, Princess. So this is me, sitting in the intersection of grief, emotion and chronic illness.
It was yesterday morning as I write this, or Sunday April 2. We have – had – two cats, brother and sister litter mates just over three years old.
We live on our sailboat and we knew the risks associated with having kitties on board. But we’d trained them to climb up the 4″ mega-rope that dangles in the water, just for this purpose, whenever we are at anchor. We thought they knew. We were also convinced we would hear if one of them fell in and we’d be able to save them. And we didn’t think this would ever happen to us.
Both cats have fallen into the water before: Princess about a year ago, which until yesterday, was her first and only swim. Moko, the boy, has gone in twice, both times while we were at a marina. He managed to scrabble back out onto the dock with no help from us.
Our Sad Sunday
Sunday, though, John and I slept in. It was a rare and needed treat after two long passage days, sailing/motor-sailing south from Puerto Vallarta along the Pacific coast of Mexico. In the early morning hour when rosy light just begins to kiss the sky, something happened. With the deck slippery and wet with heavy dew, Princess fell into the water.
When we awoke an hour or so later than usual, she did not come running for breakfast. She did not respond to the shaking of the treat container. She was not on the boat. We did not see her in the water. We got in the dinghy and drove around the bay, searching near the sandy beach to the east and the rocky beach to the west. Chamela Bay is essentially open to the Pacific ocean, which means the surf is too high for a comfortable dinghy landing. We called for a water taxi ride in to see if we could find Princess – hoping she perhaps swam to shore and we’d find her there.
We handed out boat cards that included our phone number, and showed a picture of Princess to everyone we saw. We wandered the sandy streets of the tiny village calling her name. Nothing.
It was on the water taxi ride back to our boat, Ingenium, that we learned her fate. In response to John’s mention that we’d been looking for our lost cat, the driver told us he’d seen her. He’s a fisherman by trade, running cruisers like us to and from our boats on the side. On his early morning fishing run, he saw our kitty swimming round and round the boat. Then on his return a short time later, he saw her floating, dead.
Grief and Goodbye
Our hearts are broken. We loved our soft cuddly girl, so trusting that nothing in the world would ever hurt her. We are sad for us, and sad for her brother who is suddenly an only cat. And we feel guilty: that we didn’t hear her, didn’t get out of bed at our usual time, that we didn’t do this thing or that thing that may have changed the course for her.
So what does all of this have to do with chronic illness? My fibromyalgia is worse during times of stress, including emotional stress. I didn’t always know this, and I didn’t always have a clear picture of what my own emotions were.
I had become a master of numbing my emotions, fearful of the pain or perhaps the message the emotions were sending about things in my life that I was unwilling to face. I’d eat, I’d drink alcohol, I’d do anything to take my mind away from the painful emotion. I’d ignore, I’d block my tears, put on a brave face. And my fibro symptoms would flare.
Feel to Heal
I’m doing it differently now. I’m feeling the feelings, letting them wash over and through me. I’m letting myself cry whenever I feel it coming on, and I’m not blocking it. I’m thinking about Princess, looking at her picture, cuddling her brother as he checks out her empty eating spot, her cold sleeping spot.
I’m paying attention to the pain, finally clear that I am stronger than it is. It hurts, but it is not going to take me down. The relationship between grief, emotion and chronic illness is clear to me now. So, I’m taking my vitamins and eating lots of veggies and green-juicing my breakfast, because my old ways of trying to numb the pain with sugar and carbs and processed junk food simply backfire.
When Princess pops into my mind, I love her there. I remember all the joy she brought to my life, to our lives, and what a sweet and gentle soul she was. I’m feeling to heal, knowing that these intense emotions are part of a healthy grieving process. I’m participating as they pass – confident they will pass – without taking my health for a rough ride with them.