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Access Press - Minnesota's Disability Community Newspaper

People with Disabilities Face Unique Grief, Loss Issues

by // September 10th, 2006

It is not generally understood or addressed by our society that people with disabilities experience more grief and loss on an almost daily basis than the general public. Much of the grief and loss for the person with a disability is the same as that for the person without a disability. However, the person with a disability has the added dynamic of a daily reminder—the disability itself. Unfortunately, professional caregivers both public and private are not educated to understand the grieving process in general and are less aware of the particular needs of the individual with a disability.

Mental health professionals in the field of grief and loss recommend that caregivers become educated in how grief affects the life of a person with a disability. Indeed, the accumulation of losses can become a serious health concern for someone with a disability. These losses are not necessarily due to a death; they can stem from other issues as well: health, location, jobs, aging process, change in a caregiver (affecting ones sense of security) and change in ones general health (often demanding new compensations). So many losses can lead to frustration for the person with a disability.

If the person with the disability is unable to express why they are feeling depressed or stressed, the problem may well go unchecked or not addressed. Providers both private and public often do not show sensitivity toward people with disabilities unless the person is able to express the loss. It takes a lot of energy to be able to express how you are feeling. Add in the daily frustrations for the person with a disability and it is doubly hard. Even when people with a disability may want to talk about what’s bothering them, the caregiver might not want to hear the person’s thoughts or feelings, because they are unable to change the situation, or they are not aware of the different areas of grief and loss that are part of the daily life of their client.

Although there is general information available on grief and loss from many Web sites, information pertaining to the added concerns for a person with a disability is not as readily available. I found Kathy Sherer’s work to be very helpful and have included her study as part of this article. As follows:

Loss is an inevitable part of life, and grief is a natural part of the healing process. The reasons for grief are many, such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, and the letting go of a long time dream. Dealing with a significant loss can be one of the most difficult times in a person’s life.

Different Kinds of Loss

Feelings of loss are very personal and only you know what is significant to you. People commonly associate certain losses with strong feelings of grief. These can include: death of a partner, death of a roommate, death of a parent or child, death of a sibling, death of a relative, death of a colleague/classmate, loss of a close friend, serious illness of a loved one, relationship breakup. Subtle or less obvious losses can also cause strong feelings of grief, even thought those around you may not know the extent of your feelings. Some examples include: loss of health through illness, death of a pet, move to a new home, loss of a physical ability, leaving home, loss of mental ability, change of job, graduation, loss of financial security.

Sudden Versus Predictable Loss

Sudden or shocking losses—due to events like crimes, accidents, or suicide—can be traumatic. There is no way to prepare. They can challenge your sense of security and confidence in the predictability of life. You may experience symptoms such as sleep disturbance, nightmares, distressing thoughts, social isolation, or severe anxiety. Predictable losses—like those due to terminal illness—sometimes allow more time to prepare for the loss. However, they create two layers of grief: the grief related to the anticipation of the loss and the grief related to the final loss.

How Long Does Grief Last?

The length of the grief process is different for everyone. There is no predictable schedule for grief. Although it can be quite painful at times, the grief process cannot be rushed. It is important to be patient with yourself as you experience the feelings and your unique reactions to the loss. With time and support, things generally do get better. However, it is normal for significant dates, holidays or other reminders to trigger feelings related to the loss. Taking care of yourself, seeking support, and acknowledging your feelings during these times are ways that can help you cope.

Grief Reactions

When experiencing grief it is common to feel: like you are going crazy, unable to focus or concentrate, irritable or angry (at the deceased, oneself, others, higher power) , frustrated or misunderstood, anxious, nervous, or fearful, like you want to escape, guilt or remorse, ambivalence, numbness,

How You Can Cope with Grief

Talk to family or friends, read poetry or books, exercise, seek spiritual support, join a support group, be patient with yourself, engage in social activities, eat good foods, take time to relax, listen to music, let yourself feel grief, Each one of us has an individual style of coping with painful times. The list above may help you generate ideas or create a list of your own about how to manage your feelings of grief. You may want to experiment with these ideas or. Talking to friends who have dealt with loss in the past can help you generate new ways of coping. Only you know what coping skills will fit best with your personality and lifestyle. One way to examine your own style of coping is to recall the ways you’ve dealt with painful times in the past. It’s important to note that some ways of coping with grief are helpful, like talking to others, writing in a journal, and so forth. Others may be hurtful or destructive to the healing process, like substance abuse or isolation. Healthy coping skills are important in resolving a loss. They cannot take away your feelings of loss. They can, however, help you move forward in the healing process.

How You Can Support Others Who are Grieving

Be a good listener. Just sit with them. Ask about their loss. Make telephone calls. Let them feel sad. Do not minimize grief. Ask about their feelings. Share your feelings. Remember the loss. Acknowledge the pain. Be available when you can. Talk about your own losses.

People who are grieving often feel isolated or lonely in their grief. Soon after the loss, social activities and support from others may decrease. As the shock of the loss fades, there is a tendency on the part of the griever to feel more pain and sadness. Well-meaning friends may avoid discussing the subject due to their own discomfort with grief or their fear of “making the person feel bad.” They may “not know what to say.”

People who are grieving are likely to fluctuate between wanting some time to themselves and wanting closeness with others. They may want someone to talk to about their feelings. Showing concern and thoughtfulness about a friend shows that you care. It’s better to feel nervous and awkward sitting with a grieving friend than to not sit there at all.

Taken from: Life After Loss by Kathy Sherer, Ph.D. (From the University of Texas, Counseling and Mental Health Center). Updated in 2005

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