Supporting Loved Ones through Loss

There are some disadvantages to a life-changing experience. My burnout and associated autoimmune disease changed me in many ways and opened my eyes to things I didn’t realise or know before. One of these insights is that current relationships no longer work for us. The reaction of friends and loved ones to my illness showed me the health of my life in general and in particular, my relationships.

The people I thought were close friends were not there for me when I needed help. The people we see often and share special occasions with, completely misunderstood my illness and ignored it. Often people don’t know what to say or how to help when a friend or loved one becomes chronically ill. At first they ask questions and seem interested but as the years pass they stop asking and make their own assumptions about recovery and what’s happening.


I’ve just finished reading Brené Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me. The book contains outcomes of her research studies into women and shame. She identified twelve categories of shame, which are: appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped and labelled, speaking out and surviving trauma.

The most interesting for me was surviving trauma. She found that survivors of rape and assault felt that people treated them differently and it was difficult for them to just have a normal life. The reasons for people moving away were that they didn’t want to accept that bad things happen to people they know or people like them.

“Just by associating with them, we could either end up in the same “other” pile or be forced to acknowledge that bad things happen to people like us.” ~ Brene Brown

I’ve experienced something similar with burnout. I always thought burnout happens to other people, you know, weak people and people who can’t handle stress. Not me. And then it did. I know that I’m not weak. I have run 89km in one day so I can’t be that weak.

Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In lost her husband Dave in 2015. She learnt a lot from the experience of profound grief and shared these lessons in her book Option B.  Many people feel uncomfortable around those suffering from loss and grief. They don’t know what to say or do, and they ask what they can do to help. Sandberg advises us to rather do something instead of putting the burden on the griever.

I think that’s an excellent suggestion and I was at the receiving end of a kindness like that when I was really sick. I have a friend who arrived on a weekend when my husband was away to look after my kids while I slept. That was a really kind thing to do and it helped me a lot at a time when I was really struggling. Some people I saw as an acquaintance were eager to help while those who I thought were close friends just avoided my illness altogether.

It was helpful to see the true value of friendships in this way. Those who supported me and continued to offer help and an ear, are the people I’d like in my life. Those who failed to ask how I’m managing or how I’m coping are not close to me. I understand that they might just not have known what to do or how to help but I can’t help feeling disconnected from them now.

For me, burnout was filled with loss and I had to grieve the life and person I was before. I lost my ability to work and earn income for a few years. My identity was tightly coupled with my work and when I lost that, my self image took a knock too. I lost the ability to run ultra-marathons, a significant part of my life. I lost my health as I will have a disease for the rest of my life. I terminated some relationships in order to survive and I also grieve those, along with all the other things I lost in the process. That’s a lot to deal with and some empathy from those close to me would have gone a long way.


As we recover, people also expect us to resume life as it once was. But for me, everything has changed. My outlook on life has changed. The way I feel about myself and the people I love has changed. I’m not the Kathy I was three years ago. I’m transformed into a person who has much more knowledge and understanding about illness, compassion and recovery. An experience so profound that it rocks your very identity does not leave you unchanged.

I spend a lot of time public speaking about my burnout experience. It’s difficult for me to know that my audience are potentially seeing me as weak, flawed and not like them. This is my challenge. To connect with them in a way that shows them that I’m not that different and it could happen to anyone. Moving away from people who have suffered won’t protect you from it. Burnout is not contagious, I promise. Showing empathy and listening to what they’re going through while suspending judgment will help in cementing the relationship and bringing you closer.

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I am a champion for living your passion. Writing is my passion, my destiny and my calling. I am a mother of two beautiful daughters and a wife and live in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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