Grieving over Hearing Loss
In her 1969 book entitled “On Death and Dying”, a renowned Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kubler Ross presented the five psychological stages that terminally ill people go through – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was later realized by professionals and laymen alike that people often experience these same stages as they cope with other losses. Of particular interest to us, of course, is the fact that people respond to their hearing loss with these same emotions.
The first stage in the grieving process is denial. In “On Death and Dying”, Kubler-Ross states, “Denial functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses … Denial is usually a partial defense and will soon be replaced with partial acceptance.” In the case of hearing loss, recognizing the loss may be the hardest part, especially if the loss is gradual. Reduced hearing ability is often first recognized by a friend or relative. In many cases, the person with hearing loss refuses to accept his hearing loss; it is easier for him to believe that almost everyone is mumbling than it is for him to believe that his hearing has declined.
When a person is no longer able to deny his hearing loss, the denial is often replaced with feelings of anger, rage, frustration, envy, and resentment. People may express their emotions by lashing out at one and all. They may be especially angry at the people who are most trying to help them. They often resent those who have normal hearing. This can be an especially difficult time for friends and family. In the face of what might become unjustified personal attacks, friends and family members must try to not take it personally. Realizing that this is a normal part of the adjustment process may help.
Kubler-Ross argues that the third stage of bargaining “…is really an attempt to postpone…” For a person with hearing loss, postponement may be applied to getting a hearing test or a hearing aid. This can be an especially difficult time for friends and family, because it may seem that the person with hearing loss is starting to accept their situation, but is unwilling to do anything about it.
Kubler-Ross describes the fourth stage (depression) as follows. “… when the … patient can no longer deny his illness, when he is forced to undergo more surgery or hospitalization, when he begins to have more symptoms … he cannot smile it off anymore. His numbness or stoicism, his anger and rage will soon be replaced with a sense of great loss …” For the person with hearing loss, as for the person with a terminal illness, the realization of his condition causes depression. He will almost certainly grieve for his lost hearing and all that it brought him, and he may lose hope. He may also gradually withdraw from contact with friends and family. Employment changes may also result.
Hopefully, a person with hearing loss will eventually reach the final stage of acceptance. Kubler-Ross states, “If a patient has had enough time … and has been given some help in working through the previously described stages, he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his ‘fate’. He will have been able to express his previous feelings, his envy … [and] his anger … He will have mourned the impending loss …” Many people are ready to look for ways to deal with their hearing loss only after they reach this final stage. This may explain why only a small fraction of the people who could benefit from hearing aids wear one.
For the friends and family members, it is crucial to understand this last point. It may be perfectly obvious to them that their loved one’s hearing loss is causing all sorts of difficulties, and that a hearing aid could alleviate much of his pain. But until the person with the hearing loss arrives at his own acceptance, he will probably not be willing or able to take that step.