The Importance of Grief and Acceptance After a Diagnosis

By Jori Hamilton | Published 5/26/2019 1

grief acceptance diagnosis

Photo source: iStock

I remember being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a teenager. Mostly, I felt relief to have an answer about what was wrong with me. I finally understood why I felt the way I was feeling and how my body was reacting. But I did not yet understand the role that grief and acceptance after my diagnosis would play in helping me to make the lifestyle changes I needed to better manage my condition.

My anxiety is well managed now but for a time it wreaked havoc on my body and my mind. I rebelled against my diagnosis. I allowed it to swallow me up. I was plagued with debilitating stomach aches, panic attacks, and rashes. I refused to take my medication or make the lifestyle changes that my doctor recommended. This pushed me into a depression and allowed my anxiety to run the show.

A diagnosis can trigger grief

Many people, after learning any type of serious diagnosis go through different stages of grief. Grief doesn’t just apply to death, it applies to other types of loss as well.

For some, hearing a medical diagnosis means grieving over what life could be without it. For those who are learning that they have a potentially life-threatening diagnosis, the feeling of grief can be much more profound.

Grieving is not restricted to medical diagnoses. A person can grieve the loss of a relationship, job, or even a big life change.

Grief and acceptance after a diagnosis

As I mentioned, almost any type of diagnosis can trigger the stages of grief. It is important to work through these feelings and make the necessary lifestyle changes so you can deal with your diagnosis. 

The five stages of grief are:

  • Denial:

The refusal to believe it’s happening. Feeling shocked or numb

  • Anger:

Feeling that the situation is unfair and frustrating.

  • Bargaining:

Feeling guilt, working through “what if” scenarios, and making imaginary deals to make the pain or the reason for the grief go away.

  • Depression:

                Hopelessness, being in a fog, and immense sadness.

  • Acceptance:

                 Not a comfort with the grief, but an acceptance that it happened and that it can’t be changed.


Though my diagnosis wasn’t terminal or even that unique, the beginning of my journey through anxiety was rooted in the first four stages of grief. For some, the denial stage is rooted in the shock of the diagnosis.

For me, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression created a pushback. The acceptance stage will only kick in when you begin to live more meaningfully and mindfully

A medical diagnosis is not only a loss of normalcy, but it’s also a loss of control. Most diagnoses come with a treatment plan. There are medications to take and appointments to make. You have to do many things that you did not do before. And these changes in your life may squeeze out things you enjoyed doing in your life before the diagnosis.

The pushback that occurs in the beginning stages of grief, arises, in part, from the need to have some say over what is happening.

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For someone like me, who felt a sense of relief from my diagnosis, I still felt the need to rebel against it and what it was going to mean for my life. I didn’t want my anxiety to control me.  However, pushing back against my diagnosis allowed it to have an even tighter hold.

Pushback isn’t uncommon

Pushback isn’t uncommon even in the most serious cases. In fact, in a small study of cancer patients, 29 percent of males and 50 percent of women reported that they were not following guidelines for a healthier lifestyle after their diagnosis.

Unfortunately, this pushback is damaging. Though it’s often a necessary part of grief in order to get to acceptance, the reluctance to make changes and follow protocol can have lasting effects.

For someone hearing that they have a chronic illness, a terminal diagnosis, or even a temporary medical ailment, the decisions made during the pushback can have large implications.

This is why it’s important to make lifestyle changes after a diagnosis.

The Importance of Making Changes

The need to make positive changes for your life and your body is not unique to a person with a medical diagnosis. That can be a helpful realization when someone is feeling the pushback. Many medical diagnoses require a person to change their diet or their exercise habits in order to help their symptoms. This can feel forced and unfair when things are already so hard.

For example, someone with GERD may be told to stay away from alcohol.  But, they feel like this will limit their social life. Someone with cancer may be told to avoid simple sugars. This can be enormously frustrating during an already overwhelming time. These feeling occur even when the person understands that those changes will help with symptoms and prevent further complications.

Thankfully, helping the body can also help the mind.

The great thing about making changes to the body is that they often affect the mind in the process. For example, eating food for nourishment instead of for comfort and prioritizing exercise to benefit the mind are two such changes. They both can have a lasting impact on the emotional impact of grief after a diagnosis. Physical wellness and mental health are important considerations when coping with a medical diagnosis.

But lifestyle changes are not only about diet and exercise. They are also about acknowledging limitations and embracing self-care. Some diagnoses can force a person to accept that their body can’t do certain things which is frustrating. However, making the needed lifestyle changes can be liberating and, ultimately, critical for long-term health. 

Sticking to the Plan

Making the necessary lifestyle changes after a diagnosis is a giant step in the grief process. In part, this is because it is a sign of acceptance.

This is not to say a person won’t still feel angry or depressed at times. Acceptance doesn’t simply mean feeling okay about the diagnosis; it’s about understanding that it can’t be changed. Deciding to make the lifestyle changes necessary to manage a diagnosis shows acceptance of the problem – no matter how frustrating it may be.

Acceptance does not mean abdication. You can still make joint decisions about your treatment with your doctor. For instance, many in the medical community are turning to cannabis research for answers. This openness to alternative treatments or second opinions isn’t necessarily a sign of pushback as it is a sign of acceptance, openness, and ownership over a diagnosis.

The journey through grief and acceptance after a diagnosis

Though the journey through a diagnosis may have ebbs and flows, it’s important to come back to a place of acceptance. That’s not always a permanent place, as many ping-pong back and forth between stages of grief and the acceptance necessary to make important lifestyle changes.

Some people experiment with treatment plans and different lifestyle changes to see what works and what doesn’t. Sticking to a plan or variations on that plan is all about maintaining acceptance and working on a positive outlook through a diagnosis.

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In truth, some feel a stronger sense of spirituality and self-love because of their diagnosis. Though that’s not true for everyone and isn’t attainable in certain stages of grief, it’s a thought process that can be helpful through a diagnosis long-term.

Backtracking is a part of the process

Truthfully, I sometimes backtrack into different stages of grief.

Having a panic attack in a setting that most people can navigate with ease leaves me feeling frustrated and bitter. Bouts of depression plague my treatment.  And I often beg the world to allow me to live without medication. However, that’s not my reality. For me, my lifestyle changes had to do with my diet, my mental health, and an understanding of my limitations.

Though my diagnosis has been a difficult journey, it’s also been a lesson in how impactful it is to make the appropriate lifestyle changes for your health, no matter how difficult it can be.

Jori Hamilton


Jori Hamilton is a late twenty's freelance writer residing in Portland, Oregon. Coming from a marketing background, Jori took interest in blogging and content marketing and found a particular interest in healthcare and data science.

With eight plus years of writing experience, she decided to jump fully into a freelance writing career. This gave her the opportunity to write even more content on other subjects that mattered to her, including education, politics, technology, and the environment.

Jori has contributed to Life As A Human, Tuck Magazine, Clinician Today, Girl Talk HQ, and a number of other great publications.

If she's not writing, you can find her exploring beautiful downtown Portland or curled up in a blanket, reading a good book. You can follow her on LinkedIn.


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