Grief after ostomy surgery is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one right way to do it.
Grief is universal. At some point in all of our lives, each of us will have at least one encounter with grief, be it the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the diagnosis of an illness, and yes, even ostomy surgery.
Like there are different stages of grief, there are different stages you may experience following ostomy surgery and the placement of a stoma bag. In the first few weeks following surgery, you may feel confused, angry, sad, or frustrated.
These “stages of grief’ can roll out in any order, moving back and forth in waves and gradually moving closer to the final step of acceptance. Understanding these stages can help you better navigate your feelings and recognise these waves of emotion when you are suddenly having a bad day after a period of doing well. It may help to speak to close family or friends about your feelings and, if you’re still unable to navigate your feelings, your doctor may recommend a professional who can assist.
The Five Stages of Grief
Contrary to popular belief, the five stages of loss do not necessarily occur in any specific order. Stoma wearers often move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of ostomy surgery.
Surviving a life-threatening or depilating illness may inspire you to evaluate your feelings of mortality. A common thread of hope emerges throughout each stage: As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life.
Following ostomy surgery, you may not experience grief stages in the order listed below, which is perfectly okay and normal. Instead, it’s more helpful to look at them as guides in the grieving process — it helps you understand and put into context where you are in your own personal journey following ostomy surgery.
Following ostomy surgery, everyone reacts differently. Some people wear their emotions on their sleeves; others experience their grief more internally. Each person will experience grief following ostomy surgery differently.
Stage 1: Denial
The first reaction to learning you need ostomy surgery is to deny the reality of the situation. “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, there must be another option,” people often think.
Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the diagnosis’s immediate shock, numbing us to our emotions. It’s easy to feel like life may not be worth living with a stoma bag. Denial is a transient response that carries us through the first wave of pain before the next stage – anger – makes its debut.
Stage 2: Anger
As the feelings of denial begin to fade, anger may emerge. Anger may be directed at yourself, your family, your friends, or even your doctor. Rationally, we know the person isn’t to blame. Emotionally, however, we may not be able to stop feelings of anger and blame from bubbling to the surface.
The doctor who diagnosed your illness and was unable to cure your disease – or find an alternative option to a stoma bag – might become a convenient target.
Do not hesitate to ask your doctor to give you extra time or to explain just once more the details of your illness and why ostomy surgery was the only option. Ask for clear answers to your questions regarding medical diagnosis and treatment.
Stage 3: Bargaining
A typical reaction to feelings of helplessness is the need to regain control, often through a series of “If only” statements, including:
- If only I had sought medical attention sooner
- If only I had gotten a second opinion from a different doctor
- If only I had gone to a different hospital
- If only I had explored different options available
- If only I had persisted with my illness/condition for a little longer before opting for ostomy surgery
This is an attempt to bargain. Guilt often accompanies bargaining. We start to believe we could – or should – have done something differently to prevent ostomy surgery from taking place.
Stage 4: Depression
Depression, sadness, and regret are all different forms of depression. Feeling depressed after ostomy surgery is not uncommon. In most cases, this depression will subside. If, however, signs and symptoms of depression persist, it may be a good idea to speak to your doctor or health care provider, who can provide you with contact details of councillors or a treatment plan going forward.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Acceptance is the final stage of grief following ostomy surgery and the opportunity to make peace with wearing a stoma bag. At this stage, many stoma wearers will acknowledge the reasons why ostomy surgery was necessary and, in many cases, realise just how better their lives are for it. Acceptance does not mean that you won’t miss the life you had before ostomy surgery. Instead, this stage is about accepting the fact that a new reality cannot be changed. It is about seeing how your new reality will impact your life and your relationships and make the very best of your new reality.
Remember that all the intense emotions you are going through after ostomy surgery are a normal and an appropriate response to what has happened. Make no mistake: life has forever changed – but often for the best – as many ostomy wearers will tell you. Remember that you are not alone. Millions of people across the globe have stoma bags and are living full and beautiful lives.
It is always better to get your negative feelings out into the open and find the help you need, so you can begin to look to your future with hope and optimism.