By, Lizz Bennett

Most of us have experienced the death or loss of a loved one, and all the pain, heart ache, and patience required to heal.  Some of us are aware that there are psychological processes that need to occur to heal from such devastation.  In school I learned that one cannot skip steps in this process and that each stage needs to be reached before the next.  Time frames are abstract and based on an individual’s emotional stability, support groups, relationship with the deceased or lost person, etc.  So as one person seems to progress to the next stage of grieving quicker than another, both individuals still need to experience each stage in order to heal from their pain.

In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, “On Death and Dying”, she founded the theory of the 5 Stages of Grief.  These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In that order each person, that has experienced the loss of a loved one, must acknowledge the loss, accept each stage, and experience it in order to move on.  The first time I had learned of this was in my High School Psychology classes and then again while studying pre-med in College. Most psychologists today still follow this method as they council their patients.

I believe that an injured athlete experiences the same emotional pain, because of their injury, as when someone grieves over the loss of someone they cared very deeply for.  I believe an injured athlete needs to go through the same 5 steps of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), and does so naturally when dealing with an injury as they would if they had to go through the grieving process for death.  It is especially hard when that athlete associates their identity with their athletic pursuits and successes because when the ability to train and compete is removed from their day, it’s like losing a person, the person they identified as themselves.  I don’t care if you are a professional athlete that earns a living through performance, or an age-grouper that has finally had the courage to register for that big race, both people will experience the same loss and devastation when injury happens.

I say devastation because that’s what it really is…devastating! Being at the top of your game, feeling like you are finally about to break-through to that next level of performance, feeling strong, feeling fast, feeling motivated and excited to get to your next goal, only to instantly and spontaneously get crushed by an unforeseen injury. 

Denial is trying to convince yourself that the injury isn’t THAT bad, that what the doctors are telling you doesn’t really apply to someone in as good of shape as you are. That regardless of the extreme pain, you can train through it and force your body to deal with it and get tougher because you grin and bear it, ice and pop your anti-inflammatories, modify your workouts (a little), and in no time at all you will be back to exactly the way you were…in a few short days. 

But the doctors and physical therapists tell you months, they tell you the average healing time is 8-12 weeks.  You reluctantly agree while in the back of your mind you review your fitness, your above average abilities and immediately,  in your mind,  you  cut that time to a third of the time that average people heal in.  Denial is begrudgingly following your physical therapy as you secretly continue to do your workouts and push the levels of your injury.

Anger is when you finally realize you really are hurt and that everything you have been trying to avoid facing has, in actuality, only made your recovery longer or even made your injury worse! Anger is realizing that someone should’ve warned you not to lift that much, someone should’ve told you that curb was higher than you thought, someone should’ve been smart enough to keep you healthy.  Someone, anyone, other than you, because you were doing everything right, you followed the training plan, you are a healthy athlete with a race coming up so why didn’t someone prevent this from happening. 

Anger is when you turn the blame to yourself and get mad at everything you think you did wrong as you go through every detail of the moment of injury trying to figure out what you did, in that exact second, to cause this. Then going over all the ways you should’ve been able to prevent it.

Bargaining occurs when you ask your doctor, “If I continue this therapy perfectly, I should be fully recovered sooner than you thought right?” “If I’m really careful then maybe I can still go for a run, maybe I can still find a way to train.”  Bargaining even sounds like this, “God please don’t take this away from me, I promise to be a better person and never (fill in the blank) again if I can just get better and back to training, I promise.”  Bargaining is our last ditch effort at controlling the outcome of our loss.

But once you deal with the denial, once the anger fades away, and once you finally realize bargaining won’t fix anything, comes the sadness.  Depression sets in and all there is, is emptiness and vast expanse of time lost in nowhere to go.  Goals seem distant and unachievable. No one can help or understand. We might start trying to fill our emptiness with food or sleep or lack of both. We might even start sabotaging our recovery because our plans are mute. We stop communicating, we stop caring. This is the hardest period because an injured athlete has lost their outlet for these feelings and don’t have a visible way to cope.

According to a study mention in the New York Times, 343 male college athletes, from various sports, were observed.  51% experienced some type of depression after being injured and 12% became moderately to severely depressed. Dr. Gerald Kaforey, of Vanderbilt Sport Medicine Center, stated that 1 out of every 4 or 5 of the injured athletes that come in to get treated suffer from depression.

The length of this stage can last several weeks to several months.

After each of these stages have been experienced, in order and without forced effort to move forward prematurely, then the final stage of acceptance is reached.

Acceptance is clarity of who you are, what has happened to you, and how it can be dealt with. You are more than an athlete; you could be a wife or a father.  Your identity has evolved to be more diverse, more than an athlete and your performance.  Acceptance is the realization that you can again be where you want to be athletically, but you are willing to take the necessary precautions and take the proper steps to get there. Therapy, rest, counseling, possibly a change of sport are all ways that injuries heal.  Acceptance is doing whatever it takes for however long you need too and accepting yourself as you take the time to heal.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are very poignant, tangible stages of grief that apply not only to the death of someone we love, but to the loss of our passion and identity as athletes through injury.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to get to a point where our injuries heal and we are able to continue to our goals sooner than we had thought.  But if not we need to ride out these 5 stages of grief. By doing so, I believe, we can be better athletes and more determined to enjoy our sport.  Eventually we heal, but only when we acknowledge the loss and only when we don’t rush it.

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