Navigating Grief In The Face of Illness

By Lisa Catalano, LICSW

Grief is traditionally thought of as a sense of loss after death. But the truth is that grief can enter our lives for many other reasons such as the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, and a change in your health status. For those living with a chronic illness or a serious illness, grief can begin at the time of diagnosis.

Many people, after hearing words like Cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis, experience an emotional avalanche with little ability to absorb anything that is said afterwards. Your landscape of safety, stability, and well-being shifts. It is a profound sadness and a feeling of loss over what life could have been if illness hadn’t entered. You are forever changed as a result and the evolving layers of strain demand attention, to move from grief to healing.

What is Grief?

Grief is the emotional process of coping with an uninvited and unexpected loss and can be all consuming – mentally, physically, and emotionally. You and your loved ones can experience a continuous spiral of emotion from being “ok” to feeling overwhelmed and/or fearful. It can take time to adjust to the “new you”- a new body, a new life, and a new way to move forward. It can also be a complex experience that is often re-triggered as new information comes to light or as medical treatments impact day to daily life. Grief is also very personal and affects people differently.

The Symptoms of Grief

There are some common emotions that are universally experienced as patients and loved ones navigate their response to an illness.

Shock and Denial: This is a state of disbelief and numbed feelings. It can be difficult to carry on a conversation after the initial diagnosis is presented.

Guilt and Anguish: You may feel a sense of worry over how the diagnosis will impact important people in your life.

Anger and bargaining: People describe feeling betrayed and a surge of anger, wondering how this could have happened. You may feel angry at your body, at your doctor for not recognizing the signs of illness sooner, or have a crisis of faith.

Depression: This may be a period of isolation and loneliness during which you process and reflect on the changes that illness may bring into your life.

Reconstruction and working through: You begin to normalize and adapt to your current situation and are able to create a routine and carry forward.

Acceptance and hope: This is a very gradual acceptance of the new way of life and a feeling of possibility in the future.

Grief is not a linear process from shock to acceptance. Rather, it is a process where you often experience all these emotions simultaneously, in no particular order, and with no particular timeframe.

Talk About It

One of the ways to cope with grief is to talk about it. Many people find it helpful to confide in a trusted friend or loved one.  We also encourage people to talk openly with their medical providers about their fears and worries as they navigate life with a new diagnosis. Building a partnership with your doctors and having a good understanding of what may lie ahead can help you cope better with the feelings of sadness, loss, and helplessness. Many people will also explore their grief through professional support, whether with a palliative care clinician,  psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist.

Other supportive resources include an illness-related support groups and/or caregiver support groups. Through these groups, you become part of a supportive community of people with a shared experience and understanding.  Ultimately, the goal is to find a path forward, helping you live a healthy life with your illness.


Lisa Catalano, LICSW is a coach, an independently licensed clinical social worker, and a certified Hospice & Palliative Care specialist. She has over 16 years of experience helping adults of all ages facing serious or progressive illness navigate the complexity of medical decision making. She helps clients define their own journey and is a source of support throughout the process.

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Grief and coping with an illness is hard to navigate. For professional guidance and support connect with an EpioneMD Coach.

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