Grief is like a chronic disease

by Omar Abubaker, D.M.D, Ph.D.

Dr. Abubaker and his son, Adam, on the left who died from overdose.

By the definition of the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics,  a chronic disease is one lasting three months or more, and generally cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medication, nor do they just disappear on their on its own.

Some chronic diseases include cancer, diabetes, mental illness, cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension or high blood pressure, and respiratory diseases such as asthma, and emphysema.

Despite many advances in medicine over the past one hundred years, and despite better understanding of the pathophysiology of most of these diseases, we still accept the fact that many diseases are not curable.

However, most can be controlled with medications in combination with lifestyle changes.

People can live extended periods of times with these diseases. They are characterized by periods of recovery when the signs and symptoms are under control, and are occasionally associated with relapse when the symptoms reoccur, either due to increased severity or due to increased tolerance or medication resistance.

Often, a new or alternative medication is used to put the chronic disease back under control. Most patients who suffer from chronic disease seek and receive treatment that was developed through a scientific-controlled research with an evidence-based effectiveness.

After the opioid epidemic hit home with me through the loss of my youngest son Adam,  I have learned that Substance Use Disorder (or addiction) is also a chronic disease with many similarities to other chronic diseases we have come to know for long time.

What I did not know before, and have not read in medical textbooks or medical journals, is that grief from the loss of loved one in general, and from losing a child in particular, has all the characteristics of chronic disease I listed above.

Like other chronic diseases, there is no cure for it but those  who are affected can survive it.

Although it can be severe in its acute phase, it has periods of remission and relapses that are often unpredictable. And like many other chronic diseases, if left untreated or dealt with, it can have complications and may be even fatal.

What is unique about grief and unlike other chronic diseases, the signs or symptoms of grief are rarely visible. In fact, many of those who are affected not only have no visible signs, those who suffer appear indistinguishable from other people and often appear as if all is well even to their close loved ones. While there are so many visible and measurable criteria to measure the severity and improvement of other chronic diseases, there is none to measure grief unless those  who are affected become emotionally naked.

It is only then that the deep wounds and real scars become visible and hard to miss.

The fact of the matter is that although many of us who are grief-stricken and long-term sufferers would like to share our excruciating pain (as if airing it brings some relief), very few are willing to be seen as emotionally naked.

People fear looking vulnerable, men especially.

Stepping forward to write this piece is my attempt to be an exception to the ones who don’t. And maybe, just maybe, it will sooth these wounds, help ease the pain, and possibly facilitate the healing of my wounds.

8 thoughts on “Grief is like a chronic disease”

  1. Dr. Aububaker,
    I work with you, every Monday in Pod F. I heard about your son through another colleague and for the past 2 years I have wanted to share with you what we have in common with our children.

    Jennifer Brown

  2. Thank you Dr. Abubaker. This needs to be written about more often as I think so many in our country want to sweep grief under the rug, as they do mental health illnesses and addiction. There is no cure for grief, nor a “right” way to suffer with it. Each of us will do what is best for us, and sometimes maybe even not for fear of being ridiculed or brushed aside. I am sorry for your loss of Adam. Thank you for using your loss to raise awareness and educate. 💙

  3. Wow- I never thought about grief like this but you are absolutely right. I have been thinking a lot today about your words and hope it will help me speak to people in the future better when they have lost a loved one. So beautifully said. Your words will help so many others. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. It is still so misunderstood by so many. The fact that SUD and grief from losing a child are essentially chronic diseases is no surprise to those of us who have lived it. It has been less than a year since I lost my precious son and I have changed in ways I never thought possible. My brain does not function like it used to. I will forever live with a broken heart.

  5. Omar, you are so very right. And I do think it helps to write about it. Even if no one reads it, but better if they do. I kept a journal for 18 months and wrote my heart out.
    I am also going on 7 years, like Susan, and while it never goes away, it does soften.
    I am so sorry you also lost your son to overdose, and I wish you some moments of peace.

    1. Omar – thank you for writing this article. I saw you speak at an opiod summit and learned so much from the medical perspective you shared. I am grateful for your efforts to educate doctors and other medical professionals about the dangers of over prescribing opioids. I hope the message you shared here about substance abuse and grief as chronic illnesses will help others who struggle to see that they are real medical issues. I often felt isolated when my son was an active addict because his illness was not socially acceptable to discuss. Thank you for helping to reduce the stigma!

  6. A Powerful and thoughtful piece, Dr. Abubaker.

    Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    It is one of those pieces that is a keepsake to read and re-read . Grief is silent , as we are suppose to keep our emotions silent. Those struggling with depression, substance abuse, loss of employment; loss of precious family members ( our children most especially)…well it would be great for mental health to start taking parity with the health insurance companies and physicians …so that the struggle can be cured…before any Father or family member has to experience such grief.
    Thank you for educating your colleagues how a prescription for even a tooth extraction might not be at all necessary. The pharmaceutical company has cheated many of us in our “hopes” and “dreams” for our educated, loving and wonderful children.

    Well stated. Thanks for the permission for all of us to become “emotionally naked”

  7. I am sorry for your loss. Your son , Adam, looks so handsome – young and full of promise. It’s uncanny – it’s 5:55 a.m and I’m awake – again- having dealt with insomnia since I lost my daughter to suicide nearly seven years ago on August 3. I’ve begun to worry about my own health recently having carried such a burden for so long and I just prayed about it, which I sometimes forget to do. So here I am looking at my phone which I usually won’t let myself do upon awakening. I hope by sharing you reach other men who have bottled things up inside. Your sharing reminds me to share . It’s a process – a long process – of moving forward and processing something unfathomable. I have wondered if I am stuck. The fact that you are a doctor and understand this kind of grief and the chronic nature of it, reinforces my recent concerns. I have fallen back and need to take charge again – pray, socialize, exercise, talk about it – and make deliberate efforts to move forward. Thank you for sharing and please take care of yourself.

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