Life Before RA: Make it a Wake Not a Funeral

The band marches down the street, trombones and trumpets in full swing, sweet and peppy jazz music filling the air. A group of ladies, wearing black dresses with brightly colored beads, walk and dance joyfully behind them carrying parasols. The crowd parts to let them through. Musicians, family, friends, and sometimes even strangers, take to the streets with music and revelry as they escort their loved ones to their final resting place in a celebration of life.

It is a custom I have always embraced, to honour and celebrate the past lives of my loved ones, and it’s the same principle I apply to the life I had before rheumatoid arthritis.

From Mourning to Celebration

There was moment when time stopped after I heard that diagnosis. Everything I did, everything I was prior to that moment seemed to vanish in a fog. I went through some of the five stages of grief – anger and bargaining, I added frustration, skipped over depression, and went right to acceptance.

It can certainly feel like a funeral of life as we know it after a life-changing diagnosis, and we need to take time to absorb the shock, rant and rave, cry, and yell, and acknowledge that our life might not be the same. This is where a grieving process begins on our life before RA — but what if we don’t grieve it as much as celebrate it?

We all bury parts of our lives that no longer serve us — old relationships, old friendships, painful breakups — sometimes we do it deliberately, other times it’s just a natural process we don’t even think about. Let’s not bury those accomplishments and experiences that made us who we are.

A New Beginning

It’s true, we may not be able to go back and live that same life, to repeat those experiences, but the life we lived before RA is not gone. The past, our memories and accomplishments are the core of our being, they are like the trunk of a tree. From that trunk, we can branch out in different directions.

Nothing can erase or undo our accomplishments. Even without chronic illness, our physical life can only go so far — a hockey player, a figure skater, a dancer will all retire at a certain age, even with years of life ahead of them. When they can no longer do their jobs, they branch out and find other opportunities.

Don’t be so quick to say goodbye to what you love. Let’s look at changes as a new beginning, a way to challenge ourselves and grow. We are more capable than we give ourselves credit for — there’s hidden talents in all of us and we should look for new ways to unleash those talents.

It takes courage to step into a new life, one we haven’t lived before, but we can only do that by valuing our old life. I celebrate the things I used to do. I am grateful that I got the chance to do them. I am a dancer, but RA changed that a bit. I can still dance, just on a different level. Maybe I can’t perform in big recitals anymore or on pointe, but I can teach, advise, write about dance, and choreograph.

I didn’t abandon what I loved. I found a unique way to keep it in my life. There are all kinds of creative ways to live. It’s not just about discovering what works but taking the time to enjoy that discovery along the way.

A Chance to Grow from Change

Our lives pivot with the onset of chronic illness, but life changes all the time — we move houses, change jobs, lose jobs, find jobs, lose loved ones, gain loved ones, get sick, and recover. We don’t have to like those changes, especially when we didn’t cultivate them, but we do need to deal with them just the same. Life is not stagnant; things will always shift, and we need to be fluid enough to change with it.

A change in life, whether it be with chronic illness, jobs, or a family situation doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, it just means we need to have a little more patience, to work a little harder and recognize that we are worth the time and energy.

RA changed a few things in my life — but I can look back and say, “look what I had the privilege of doing before everything changed.” It takes time and planning to reinvent our life, and rediscover joy and fulfilment. I took the experiences I had, brought them forward, and transformed them. This allowed myself to grow another branch from my trunk.

No matter what changes we face, we always have a chance to grow. So, when you have that wistful moment looking back, put on some music and give yourself a round of applause, celebrate what you have done and what you are yet to do.

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