The house is prepped and the food is ready to be put into the oven. I'm looking forward to seeing my extended family. Because we are all busy with our own careers and families, we really only see each other once a year. I wish it were more often and this is definitely something we need to work on!
Yesterday I was asked to answer some questions concerning the adjustment to the loss of a limb. While I can only speak from my own experiences, somehow it feels appropriate to share this Thanksgiving. Much of my recovery is due to the support of my friends and family. I am beyond thankful for their care, support and for being my cheerleader when I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel.
Losing a limb, especially when it occurs during adulthood, is a life-shattering event. Whether the amputation is immediate due to trauma or drawn-out through limb salvage attempts, the individual is forced to rebuild their life. From home modifications to struggling with body image, the life before the amputation can feel completely foreign as if it was lived in the distant past by somebody vaguely familiar.
Body image issues are rarely voiced but plague most amputees. When you no longer recognize your body shape, the simple task of wearing pants feels foreign and uncomfortable. Sleeping, bathing, and other everyday mundane tasks suddenly become constant reminders that your body, and your life, are irrevocably altered.
Sexual intimacy is another area that is often only discussed in whispers. It is difficult to be intimate when you feel uncomfortable with your body. It is paramount that the couple maintains an open dialog as both individuals learn to navigate a new normal together.
When a limb is lost, everything feels different. It is terrifying to feel uncomfortable and a stranger in your own body. Adjustment takes time, and while it can be coaxed and supported, it cannot be forced. Every amputee has their own journey but respecting the life-altering event and the ensuing emotional trauma is paramount for supporters.
The phases of adjustment are like the stages of grief, although the cycle is more abstract. The new amputee needs a safe place to express their grief, anger, and fears over living without a limb. Every situation is unique to the individual. Adjustment is fluid over time, and a well-adjusted individual may experience periods of profound grief over their limb loss throughout the course of their life. Keeping an open dialog and providing a safe way to communicate emotions is the best way to support a loved one through an amputation.
Society fully expects amputees to be able to ambulate with a prosthesis. Walking is a concrete milestone that society uses to judge recovery. I would caution against believing that every amputee is well-adjusted to their limb loss simply because they are using a prosthesis daily. For some, learning to walk again was the easiest part of their journey.
The physical wounds often heal before the emotional adjustment begins. Redefining a new normal after an amputation takes time and the journey is often wrought with both victories and setbacks. Learning about and mastering the use of ambulatory aids, including prosthetic devices, can feel overwhelming. The expectation by family and friends that the new amputee should be “fine” when they have learned to walk with a prosthesis only serves to invalidate the emotional turmoil that arises when grappling with a monumental life change.