Figuring out how to deal with losing your independence after a serious illness or injury can feel like a really hard task to do.

When a serious illness or injury strikes, people often say they lose ‘all semblance of me’. That is partly, and sometimes a big part, associated with losing their independence.

We tend to understand our independence as being able to do things we enjoy and/or need to do when we want or need to do them. And do a lot of these activities without support or help, which is generally people’s preferred option in western societies. We place a high value on independence.

But this is where we can get ourselves into a bit of a pickle.

When you are dealing with a serious illness or injury, it can take time to figure out how to deal with losing your independence. It's not uncommon to keep trying to do everything yourself and get yourself into a pickle in the process. For example, in this picture a woman is holding her walking stick and handbag waving goodbye to her partner and saying, 'I'm going to pick up the kids now and get food for dinner.' He responds, ' Honey, I can get the kids and food for dinner. Why don't you rest? You look exhausted.'

We want to be able to do things for ourselves without any help because it makes us feel normal, something we strive for after a serious illness or injury or whilst living with a chronic illness. We don’t have to feel guilty asking others for help or risk people saying no they cannot help.

 It also feeds our self-worth because we show ourselves we can do something on our own.

And we don’t have to worry about people saying no or appearing too needy, because that is the last thing people want. (These are links to a series of blogs on asking for help I wrote.)

All very valid reasons. Yet, we can expend so much energy on striving for the independence we once had, and struggle in the process because our body has changed and doesn’t function like it used to, that we end up not focusing on creating a new kind of independence that can help us live a new kind of life. That is understandable too. It’s part of the process of figuring out how to deal with losing your independence after illness or injury.

We can expend so much energy on striving for the #independence we had prior to our #seriousillness #seriousinjury and struggle in the process, that we end up not focusing on creating a new kind of independence that can help us live… Share on X

Your independence is also about your freedom and there’s a fight happening against this loss too.

When we lose the physical or mental abilities to do what we once did so freely, without thinking, we lose a sense of freedom. For example, if you have sustained a high-level spinal cord injury, you can only get out of bed in the morning with help from someone else. You can’t just get up and get ready for your day on your own anymore.

Or maybe you can walk but due to how your health issue affects you, you cannot go out and about without someone being with you. Or having bladder and bowel issues means you have to plan in advance and know where public toilets are when you go out.

How to deal with losing your independence after illness or injury can also read as how to deal with losing your freedom. I think people are also mourning the loss of their freedom and associated spontaneity.

When we lose the physical or mental abilities to do what we once did so freely and independently, without thinking, we lose a sense of freedom. #seriousillness #seriousinjury Share on X

But have you really lost your independence?

This may come across as a challenging question, but I don’t mean to be insensitive. That is not my intention. Yes, you may not be able to do certain activities by yourself anymore and may have to rely on equipment to manage your health issue and/or get around. In that respect, you may feel you have lost some or all of your independence.

I’ve been thinking about this and wondering if you are ever truly independent, and what would help you to learn how to deal with losing independence after illness or injury in a way that helps you to have quality of life.

So I looked up the definition of independence and independent as part of that. The definitions got me thinking. I want to share it with the intention of offering a rethink on what independence means. With the aim that an alternative view may lessen anxiety, sadness, anger over a change in your level of independence, and help you develop a new approach towards it.

Here’s the definition for ‘independent’.

What does being independent mean?

Independent, according to, means to:

  1. ‘not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker.
  2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.
  3. not influenced by the thought or action of others: independent research.
  4. not dependent; not depending or contingent upon something else for existence, operation, etc.
  5. not relying on another or others for aid or support.
  6. rejecting others’ aid or support; refusing to be under obligation to others.
  7. possessing a competency: to be financially independent.
  8. sufficient to support a person without his having to work: an independent income.
  9. working for oneself or for a small: privately owned business.
  10. expressive of a spirit of independence; self-confident; unconstrained: a free and independent citizen.’

These aren’t in a ranked order.

(I retrieved the above from the website and left out a couple of statements which weren’t relevant to our discussion here.)

Which of those ways of being independent can you still do?

Figuring out how to deal with losing your independence is a definitely a process. In this picture the woman's partner is asking if she needs help in sorting through stuff she is dealing with. The woman is saying, 'No. I got this. Thanks.' The woman is holding various ways of being independent: not relying on others, possessing a competency, working for oneself, spirit of independence, not dependent on equipment to function, rejecting support, not influenced by others and not controlled by others.

Some, many or all of them?

Looking at the above statements, you can often still do points 1, 2 and 3 whilst living with the impact of a challenging health issue. But some of these may not come as easily if you (or a loved one) have/had a brain injury, and it will also depend on the type of brain injury.

Regarding point 3, you may choose to be influenced by the thoughts of people like healthcare professionals, other experts and peers to help you make your own decisions regarding your treatment, care, rehabilitation, returning to work, etc. This is an independent choice on your part.

Point 4 may or may not be applicable to you. If you have to use a ventilator to breathe, or mobility aids to get around, then yes, you are dependent on equipment to help you live or get around. Maybe you’re not dependent on using a walking stick yet but know you might have to some day.

Some people embrace using equipment because it helps them live the life they want. Others do not because they see it as weakness or it’s a reminder of how they have changed in a way they never wanted to change or something else.

Not relying on another or others for aid or support and rejecting others’ offers of support is common

For the reasons mentioned above regarding not seeking out or accepting help, I see a lot of people doing points 5 and 6. In my work, this is where I see a lot of people get themselves into the pickle.

You may find that point 7 changes for you, particularly if you have to reduce the hours you work, have to change jobs because you can’t do the job you once did, or you can no longer work. Linked to this, point 9 is relevant for those who are self-employed.

I am not wholly sure if point 8 is relevant to many people. But it could be if your partner or family is able and willing to financially support you.

I look at point 10 and think this can be all about your mindset.

Which of these are a priority for you in how you want to live your life?

What is the most important thing to you about being independent in how you live your life with the impact of a #seriousillness #seriousinjury? #independence Share on X

If you put these ways of being independent in a ranked order of importance to you, what would your rank order be?

What are your top three ways of being independent? What is it about them that they are so important to you?

Are you doing them now in your life?

Which ones are of lesser importance to you? How come they are not as important?

Has your attitude towards any of these ways of being independent changed for you? If so, how? And why?

What kind of tasks, jobs, activities in your life can you still do without help? Even if the activity takes longer or you have had to modify your approach to doing it. Which ones do you need help with? If you had to rank these activities in order of importance of you being able to do them, what would that ranking look like?

Learning how to deal with losing your independence is a journey. In this picture the woman is sitting down saying, 'Can you be patient with me as I figure all this out?' Her partner is saying, 'Sure thing honey.' What she is trying to figure out is listed as questions in the picture. What does being independent mean to you>? Are you striving to be as independent as your pre-illness/injury self? How is that going for you? What can you still do on your own even if you've had to adapt your approach? How do you feel about asking for help? Or using equipment? How much self-compassion do you show to yourself?

How to deal with losing your independence

Learning how to deal with losing your independence isn’t always easy. So today I just wanted to offer some thoughts and questions with the aim of getting you to think a little more deeply and differently about it. To bring a bit more ease to your journey of learning how to deal with losing your independence.

I’ll continue on this topic by focusing on how you regain your independence after illness or injury. Hint. To do that, what being independent looks, sounds and feels like to you will need to change. If you haven’t signed up to my newsletter, you can do so below to ensure you don’t miss the next instalment on this topic.

Picture of an original quote by Return to Wellness: What does being independent when living with a challenging health issue mean to you? This is a good question to ask yourself when figuring out how to deal with losing your independence due to an illness or injury.

What’s it like for you?

How have you been dealing with losing your independence? Or watching a loved one deal with this? What does being independent mean to you? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).  

If you are living with a challenging health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support on any of the issues discussed here, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2019

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