Sports have always been a part of my life. As I grew older, I stopped seeing sport as competition and started seeing a source of community. Many of my closest friendships today were forged on the field. My husband and I played soccer together for a year before we began dating, and our biggest wedding-planning stress was making sure we could invite the entire team.
When we abruptly moved to Florida, the loss of that tight-knit group was, in a word, devastating. After a long search, we had finally found a welcoming co-ed team here – when I was suddenly relegated to the sidelines.
Just over two years ago, a routine, low-risk surgical procedure inexplicably resulted in a ruptured quadriceps tendon, leaving me unable to walk or extend my lower leg. Descriptions of this injury often include words like “serious,” “uncommon,” “disabling” and, of course, “devastating.”’ I did not realize at the time just how fitting this term was.
The months following another surgery to repair my tendon are mostly a blur to me now; taking care of my then 2-year-old and keeping up with school and work while on one leg was all-consuming. It wasn’t until much later that I began to recognize signs of depression related to my injury, the cause of which remains unknown.
I often felt myself blinking back tears at small, unexpected moments.
I used to enjoy watching soccer with my husband on Saturday mornings, but increasingly found myself avoiding our time together, unable to fully confront what I had lost. Frustration at once-simple tasks – walking the dog, playing on the floor with my daughter – often boiled over to anger. I stopped wearing shorts and skirts to avoid questions about my scar, and I deflected questions such as, “How’s your leg doing?” with humor. “It’s still attached,” I’d reply with a laugh.
Unfortunately, the repair failed to heal properly, and I often felt myself blinking back tears at small, unexpected moments, when other parents would kneel down to be eye-level with their children, for example. I was surprised to feel that these simple acts had been stolen from me. It took me a long time to finally label these feelings for what they were: grief.
Despite loss being a nearly universal human experience, it seems that we are poorly equipped to address this sort of pain in both ourselves and in others.
I recognized that the complexity and ambiguity of my injury often made people uncomfortable, so I was happy enough to let others think that I was on a normal path to healing and recovery. This facade worked so well that even I fell for it, chalking up my intense and erratic emotions to just being a tired, working mom.
I’ve since learned that grief is a normal reaction to any loss, not just loss of a loved one. Grief often follows traumatic injury or chronic illness, yet I never allowed myself to think my situation was “that bad.”
And truly, it’s not. I continue to work to regain strength and hope that I will one day have more functionality. But I see now that returning to my former physical state is highly improbable and participating in the sports I once loved would be a huge risk to my livelihood. Admittedly, I lived for high-energy activities; downhill skiing and soccer aren’t exactly low-impact. But they were an integral part of my identity and were the foundation of some of my most important relationships.
The poet William Cowper said, “Grief is itself a medicine.” So finally, I’ve started allowing myself to concede the magnitude of my loss.
At a time in my life where much of my agency felt stripped from me, naming and embracing my grief has given me back some degree of control. There are days when I still feel the insult of this injury deeply. Other days, I cope. I acknowledge. I accept.
Perhaps grieving really is another step on the path to healing after injury.
Katie Philp is the research and evaluation manager for the Parramore Education and Innovation District, a project of UCF’s Center for Higher Education Innovation. She can be reached at [email protected].
The UCF Forum is a weekly series of opinion columns from faculty, staff and students who serve on a panel for a year. A new column is posted each Wednesday on UCF Today and then broadcast on WUCF-FM (89.9) between 7:50 and 8 a.m. Sunday. (A podcast of this column is available on the radio station’s website.) Opinions expressed are those of the columnists, and are not necessarily shared by the University of Central Florida.