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MS and Coping with Grief

By Matt Cavallo

Many of you know me for my dog story. Whether it is from reading my memoir or being in the audience for one of motivational speeches, you know the story of how I got my dog, Ted. For those of you who don’t, here is a brief summary.

I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis in May of 2005. I lost my ability to walk and had to learn how to walk again in the pool. While I was in the hospital in Weymouth, Mass., recovering, a half a state away in Oxford, Mass., a litter of soft-coated Wheaten terriers had been born. 

I was discharged from the hospital at the end of May and I had to learn to walk again using outpatient physical therapy, both in the pool and in the clinic. A couple of weeks later as I was recovering, my neurologist diagnosed me with probable multiple sclerosis. 

I’d like to say I handled it well, but I didn’t. I went into a deep depression and stayed that way until my birthday, which was on July 15. That was the day I learned about that litter born in Oxford, and that I was getting the male from the litter. We took him home on July 30 and named him Teddy. From that moment, my whole outlook on MS changed and I dedicated my life to living the best life I could despite the challenges of MS. It was then that I promised my wife that no matter what my MS was doing, I would walk Ted twice a day. Even if I could barely walk.

On Aug. 29, Teddy crossed the rainbow bridge. For the first time in my life with MS, I was going to have to face the challenges without my best friend. I was devastated. To me, he was more than a dog or a family member, he became my identity as he helped me fulfill my promise. We walked every day, twice a day until I became stronger and independent. At the end, over the past couple of months, I was the one who needed to help him.

Even though he was breaking down over the last couple of months, I was not ready to let him go. Now that he is gone, I am still not ready. I am struggling with the grief I feel. Grief is the natural response and emotion suffering to loss in your life and it can take many forms. No two people grieve the same. Some have trouble eating or sleeping, some are completely overwhelmed and some bury that emotion deep inside and act like nothing is wrong.

Most are familiar with the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Many of us get stuck in one of those stages and never fully accept the loss. Living with MS, it is important to go through all of the stages because we are more susceptible to depression and it is a common symptom we experience. If you get depressed, it is easy to stay there and it is where I am now (although I do revert to denial really easily and forget he is gone). Here are some tips that I am going to use to process my grief, so I don’t get stuck in depression.

Tips for MS and Coping with Grief

* Keep a grief journal using the five stages of grief as a guideline. I mentioned earlier that I keep going back and forth between denial and depression. I also experience bargaining as well as I vacillate back and forth between the stages. The reason I know this is because I am keeping a journal of where I am at mentally to cope with the loss. I don’t want to get stuck in depression, so I am trying to document when I turn the corner for each stage.

* Let friends and family in. I mentioned Ted was my best friend. While he was in a sense, my true best friend is my wife, Jocelyn. She and I are grieving together and it is important that we communicate and get through the loss together. It is also important that we address our kids’ emotions. Even though the conversations can be emotional, it is important that we have them so that we can all process the loss together.

* Allow yourself time. The past three weeks have felt like three years. Everywhere in my house reminds me of him. The pain still feels as fresh today as it did when is passed. That is okay. Feeling these emotions are natural and they take time. Certain people process it faster than others. That is ok, too. In my conversations with my family, we are all at different stages, however, we are allowing each other the space and time to grieve in our own ways

* Seek support. Maybe you don’t have a built-in support group. That’s okay, too. You can find support groups online. You can reach out to grief counselors or other mental health professionals, your faith or find an in-person support group. There are many resources available, but the first step is deciding that you need help. Deciding to seek help is often the most difficult part.