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Does Grief Ever Go Away?

Child hugging dad

This content was originally shared via The Food Allergy Counselor's email series. If you'd like more allergy life, mindset, and stress/anxiety management tips such as this, be sure to sign up to get them sent right to your inbox!

Do any of these statements resonate with you? Or maybe they remind you of similar thoughts you've had before: 

  • "This wasn't how I expected parenting to be!"

  • "I miss how life was before this diagnosis!"

  • "If I could just stop being sad about these allergies, I would be fine!"

The statements above signal that someone may be experiencing grief or an intense emotional experience triggered by loss. While we typically associate grief with the loss of a loved one, the reality is that grief can show up after experiencing a variety of types of losses, including when the reality isn't what we expected or hoped for. 

When it comes to life with food allergies and/or allergic conditions, these are common losses that can give way to feelings of grief: 

  • The loss of normalcy and/or navigating life with more spontaneity

  • Reality not match expectations of how you thought life would be

  • Observing your child experiencing a very different childhood than yours

  • Disconnection from parts of yourself and your life

Sometimes the grief we feel after receiving an allergy diagnosis can feel like we're trapped in quicksand - the more we try to break free and leave it behind, the deeper we sink. And that grief can intensify and take hold again if we experience an allergic reaction or flare-ups of our allergic conditions. We're then left to wonder how (and if) we can get our grief to go away, and if we'll ever be able to break free from the grief cycle. 

Here's where I'm going to introduce an alternative approach for navigating grief besides the familiar Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.

The "Growing Around Grief" model, developed Dr. Lois Tonkin is based on acceptance and growth. It challenges the common thought that grief needs to shrink with time and go away in order for us to move forward. 

Instead, the Growing Around Grief model tells us that

  • Initially, grief seems to take up all of the space (life)

  • Your grief will stay the same size, but space (life) will grow around it

  • Even if it stays the same size, its intensity and hold on you will change 

  • The goal isn't to get rid of the grief, but rather, move forward with it there

  • You can feel grief throughout life while also feeling joy and happiness

  • Tools to help you grow the space (life) around the grief: time, new experiences, willingness to put one foot in front of the other, openness to feeling grief/sadness without judgment and seeing it as a setback

What this model emphasizes is that we don't have to engage in a struggle with grief. We also don't have to pretend it's not there. And we don't have to believe that its presence means we're stuck, or not making forward movement. Instead, we can honor this very normal response to a life-impacting change, hold it kindly, give it the space it needs, and remind ourselves that we can learn to have a full, meaningful life even with grief still present.

And how do we get ourselves there? We start by just putting one foot in front of the other each day. Literally - one step at a time - that's movement!

Here's another illustration of this model. You can see that as time moves on, the grief size stays the same, but the space around it (the flower pot, which represents life) grows.

Tonkin's model of grief image

Applied to allergy life, it might look like this:

Growing Around Grief model image

What if you DON'T experience grief after receiving a food allergy or allergic disease diagnosis? That's okay, too!

The allergy diagnosis isn't a one-size-fits-all experience, nor is the entire allergy journey. Some may not initially feel grief, and instead, feel relieved to have a diagnosis that explains what they've been dealing with. Others may feel grief hit them like a ton of bricks at the time of diagnosis. Some may experience grief at other points in life, such as when there are additional life changes. And some navigate this journey without grief!

When it comes to emotions, being open to and respecting all of your feelings is helpful.

There's no right or wrong way to move through the emotions we may feel when dealing with allergies, so don't put rules or timelines on yours either!

The key takeaways on the topic of allergy-related grief:

  • Grief is a normal feeling after receiving an allergy diagnosis due to life-impacting adjustments, and the loss of normalcy and life as you expected it to be (but not everyone diagnosed with a food allergy or allergic condition experiences grief)

  • It's helpful to change the focus from eliminating or ignoring grief to allowing it space while you/your life expands around it, as ignoring it will just cause it to work harder to be acknowledged

  • Grief's intensity may resurface, but that doesn't mean you're not making forward movement

  • Tools to help you continue growing around the grief include time, being brave and stepping outside of your comfort zone in order to experience new things, practicing allergy skills in order to increase competence/confidence, and letting what matters most lead the way forward (even WITH grief present)


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