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How to Cope with the 5 Stages of Grief after Stroke

caregiver consoling survivor coping with grief after stroke

Grief after stroke is something that many survivors face. When your life changes overnight, it’s only natural to feel grief – and everyone experiences it differently.

After a stroke, it helps to understand the stages of grief that you may go through. Through self-understanding and healthy coping mechanisms, you can help yourself reach the last stage of grief, which is acceptance.

In this article, you will learn:

Understanding Why Grief Happens

Many of us are accustomed to thinking of grief as the deep sorrow we feel after the death of a loved one. But what many of us don’t realize is that grief can be triggered by a substantial loss of any kind – including those that happen after a stroke.

For many stroke survivors, the stroke is a life-changing event that involves different kinds of loss. Certain abilities, such as talking and walking, can be compromised. And even though rehabilitation can help restore many abilities, it takes time and hard work. Thus, survivors may experience feelings of loss around their old life, abilities, and even sense of identity.

To see how a stroke can cause grief, let’s look at an example of a professional guitar player that makes a living from making music. If a stroke compromised her hand function, she may lose the ability to play guitar and, as a result, struggle with the loss of a career and a beloved hobby. Not only can this challenge her identity, but the physical impairment may also lead to lowered feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem.

As you can see, a stroke can result in many different types of losses, which can all lead to feelings of grief.

To cope with these feelings, it can help to understand what the stages of grief look like. This way, you are aware of yourself and what might happen on the road to recovery. We will discuss this next.

The Stages of Grief After Stroke

Grief is commonly known to occur in five stages as first described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Her 5-stage grief framework, first created in 1969, has been well-received by some and later criticized by others for being inaccurate and outdated.

Try not to look at these stages as a rigid outline of grief, which is often a messy process. Instead, know that the stages of grief are often experienced out of order and it looks different for everyone.

With that said, here’s an overview of the 5 stages of grief and how they relate to stroke recovery:

Stage 1: Denial

After a stroke has been treated, you might have moments (or even days) of denial, where you’re in utter disbelief that the life-changing event happened.

Many stroke patients find themselves thinking, “I never thought something like this would happen to me.”

Stage 2: Anger

Anger is the next stage of grief. Remember that not all stages are experienced in order, so this does not mean that anger will happen right after denial – although it can.

Anger after stroke can be triggered by different factors. A survivor could be frustrated that everyday tasks suddenly take enormous effort; that they experienced a life-changing event that they didn’t ask for; that insurance only covers a limited amount of rehabilitation.

If you struggle with anger after stroke, it’s important to have healthy coping mechanisms in place, such as deep breathing, getting outside in nature, or participating in psychotherapy. If anger turns into aggressive behavior, you may need extra help, such as talking to your doctor about possible medication.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Bargaining is an interesting stage of grief. It occurs when you start making deals with a higher power through if/then statements. For example, “if I do all my rehab exercises, then please let me get back to normal again.”

Because the stages of grief are not linear, it’s possible that some people skip this step or find themselves revisiting this pattern often.

Regardless of if/when you experience bargaining, it can be a helpful step if it inspires action. Results are made through action. If bargaining with a higher power helps motivate you to participate in rehab, this could be a productive stage of grief.

However, if your bargains seem to go unanswered, try not to let it stop you from pursuing rehabilitation. Stroke recovery is not linear, but you can always continue to push for recovery.

Stage 4: Depression

The fourth stage of grief is depression, and it is common after a stroke. In fact, post-stroke depression affects one third of stroke survivors at any one time after stroke.

Depression can be a difficult stage of grief to move through. But we must move through it, because the only way out is through.

If you experience depression after stroke, it can help to know that it’s normal and should pass with time and healthy habits (such as participating in psychotherapy).

Also, reading uplifting self-help books like Healing & Happiness After Stroke can help, too.

No matter what, keep participating in rehabilitation to push for the higher recovery you deserve.

Stage 5: Acceptance

The final stage of grief is acceptance. At this point, you have accepted your current situation and found your “new normal.”

You find yourself becoming accepting towards recovery. You know progress will continue to take hard work, but you’ve accepted where you are and are eager to keep moving forward.

Once you reach acceptance, you may have days or weeks where you slip backwards into grief. But since you’ve reached acceptance once, you have faith that you can reach it again.

Up next, we’ll provide some tips to help you get to this point.

Tips for Managing Grief After Stroke

Knowing the stages of grief is a great step towards managing your emotions. It can provide relief within itself to know what you are experiencing and what you might experience.

Along with self-understanding, you can try the following tips to help cope with grief after stroke:

  • Participate in psychotherapy. We’ve mentioned this several times already because it’s arguably the most helpful step. Therapists are trained to help people process feelings of loss and grief. Having the ability to express your feelings with no judgment can provide immense growth and relief.
  • Find an outlet. Because anger is one of the stages of grief, it’s important to have an outlet available. Some people find it helpful to watch a comedy because humor helps break the cycle of angry emotions. Do whatever you need to safely avoid any aggressive behavior after stroke.
  • Keep a journal. Write down how you’re feeling on good days and bad days. This will create a helpful log of how you’re doing. Then, when things feel dark, you can look back and remind yourself that things usually go up after they’ve been down.
  • Stick with a consistent rehab regimen. The physical side of rehabilitation can often help with the emotional side. It can be motivating to see progress. And the more you improve, the more hope and optimism you will feel towards recovery.
  • Read more about emotional healing. The emotional side of stroke recovery doesn’t get as much attention as the physical side. For this reason, it’s important to seek more information. The book Healing & Happiness After Stroke is a great resource. It discusses the emotional side of stroke recovery, including tips to cope with grief, reestablish your identity, and boost self-esteem.

Hopefully these tips help you find a little grace as you move through any feelings of grief after stroke.

Navigating Grief After Stroke

Grief is a normal part of the recovery process, especially if the secondary effects of a stroke cause substantial losses for a survivor.

Remember that feelings of loss and depression are a normal part of the process.

By keeping up with healthy habits, such as psychotherapy and daily rehab, you can stay on track towards recovery and the final stage of grief: acceptance. The road to recovery is never linear, but as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you should see general signs of improvement over time.

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