Relationship Loss after Illness

Navigating Relationship Loss after Illness

Relationship Loss after IllnessA serious illness – or setback of any kind – is likely to prompt several transition periods, usually unpredictable. Although transitions are an essential, potentially invigorating part of life, they might not always be fun when you’re in the middle of one. If you understand the nature of the process – and can identify where you are in it – you have a better chance of maintaining your equilibrium through the tougher times.

Relationship transitions are one of the common “side effects.” Of course, it’s easier when important relationships transition with you, but it’s not always the case, nor is it practical. Following are some common scenarios. Do you recognize any of these in your own life?

Friends and allies might “suddenly” disappear or become awkward around you
You lose or leave your job and your work community is gone
Romantic partners ditch you, or you ditch them!
A business partnership falls apart and you’re left holding the bag
Your financial picture might change, requiring you move to another community.

William Bridges, an expert in transition, identified 3 stages we pass through. As you read the summary of these 3 phases, see if you can detect which one you’re in at the moment.

Endings: something is coming to an end – or has. You can feel it, you know it. It can take as long as a couple of years between the first glimpses of the shift and the actual ending. At other times, a sudden break precipitates the transition.

I’ve experienced both prompts in this ending phase. Within a year of becoming ill with Crohn’s Disease, I initiated the end of a marriage that was ultimately healthy. A few years later I was unexpectedly let go from a job after a 10-day disability leave because “it wasn’t working out.” The latter was definitely harder, and sent me into a deep phase of self-inquiry, into the “neutral zone.”

The Neutral Zone: Bridges’ name for this stage seems like a misnomer. It hardly feels neutral, although it is in that it signifies you haven’t completely let go of the past, nor moved solidly into the next phase. What’s more, you can be “lured” back to what was familiar, even if it’s no longer healthy.

The neutral zone can be experienced as everything from limbo, mixed feelings and confusion, to hope, endless choices, even increased creativity. You’re likely to experience all of these at some point!

New Beginnings: whew, you made it. The archetype for this phase might be characterized by the rising phoenix, and is accompanied by feelings of relief, “sanity,” and a sense of being back on track.

In this phase you might periodically think about the lost person or community, but such thoughts don’t overwhelm your sense of equilibrium. Furthermore, you’re likely to have made new connections with people and opportunities that better suit the updated you.

Beware the Comparison Trap – Getting Stuck in the Neutral Zone

Before “Charlene” became ill with fibromyalgia, she enjoyed a robust social life and career. The symptoms became so severe that she had to stop working, and an unwanted divorce required she move back home with her parents, with two children in tow and away from all her friends. Says Charlene, “I had a good life: good friends, a nice car, two children and an alcoholic husband,” (almost) everything she ever wanted.  She was so devastated by her circumstances, that she got stuck in the neutral zone.

Repeated self-talk that might indicate you’re stuck in the neutral zone:

  • We used to…
  • I could [blank] before…
  • I remember when…
  • It was [blank] before…
  • They used to…

Wistful feelings are a normal part of the grieving process. They only become problematic if you can’t or won’t let go.

What You Miss Most Might Surprise You

Relationships, regardless of their nature, give us a sense of purpose, of identity and/or love. This is what makes them so juicy. We express ourselves inside our connection with others.

Yet, as much as you might miss your friends, work family or community, underneath it all you are likely to discover that what you really miss is who YOU were in the relationship. In many ways this is the good news. If you can identify what you miss most about who you were, you can find other avenues through which to express these same passions, skills, etc.

At first you may not like this idea, but if you can lean into it for a moment and take a closer look, you might find it’s true. Think about anything or anyone you loved that is no longer in your life. Who were you in that dynamic? What did you get to be or do? Might there be other means through which to express the same, even if differently?

Recovery Takes Time

By no means am I suggesting you push through the process. Even after you get your “aha” insights, you may still feel sad and lost at times. This doesn’t mean you’re slipping backwards. Allow yourself those moments. If it helps, look back a couple of months and check in with yourself. Are you experiencing fewer sad and lost days than before. Yes? All is well.

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