Emotions and Loss of Independence After Surgery

Emotions and Loss of Independence After Surgery

We often look at surgery as something to “get through” before we get on with our life—but the truth is so much of the work surrounding a healthy surgery experience takes place long after you’ve returned home from the hospital. If you or a loved one is getting ready to undergo a procedure that will lead to a short or prolonged period of loss of independence after surgery, there’s a wide array of emotions you may experience tied to that increased dependence. Today, then, we’re breaking down all you need to know about emotions surrounding the loss of independence after surgery.

Questions to consider before you go into surgery:

One of the reasons we experience a wide array of emotions after major surgery is we’re caught off guard by our new lifestyle and the extreme changes we experience. Managing these emotions, then, comes down to preparing yourself before surgery for the changes you’ll experience after. Things you should consider in advance include:

  • How will this surgery affect my ability to drive?
  • How will this surgery affect my morning routine (my ability to shower, dress, and get myself ready)?
  • Will I be able to move around my house comfortably or are there aspects of my living space that need to be altered?
  • Will someone need to live with me full-time, and if so, for how long? 
  • When will I be able to return to work?
  • How will this surgery affect my ability to perform basic tasks at work? 
  • How will this surgery affect me mentally and emotionally? 

Emotions you might experience:

Depression surrounding the loss of independence after surgery is the most common emotion we hear about—but it’s not the only emotion tied to undergoing a procedure that affects your level of independence. Other feelings you might experience include: 

  • Shock: Genuine surprise at the drastic way surgery has changed your everyday life.
  • Sadness: A sense of longing for the independence you had before surgery.
  • Resentment: That “why me” feeling of frustration and irritation.
  • Depression: A feeling of severe sadness and hopelessness linked to the loss of independence you’re experiencing. (Learn more about depression after surgery.)
  • Anger: Animosity for the situation, as well as possible anger toward those around you for encroaching on your space or treating you with “kid gloves”.
  • A Sense of Loss: Grieving your previous life and previous physical independence.
  • Denial: Refusal to accept you’re no longer as independent as you once were; attempting to perform tasks your body isn’t ready to take on. 

Three Crucial Things To Keep In Mind: 

  • “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This old adage could not be more true when it comes to dealing with the loss of independence after surgery. While it may be hard at first, try to avoid looking at your new life in comparison to your old life. Instead, train yourself to view it as its own brand-new story. Instead of saying, “I used to be able to walk five miles a day and now I can only walk one with assistance”—frame it as: “I can walk one whole mile and that’s something to be grateful for.” Look for opportunities to tally your wins, rather than counting your losses. 
  • Loss of independence shouldn’t mean loss of agency. While your caregivers may have to perform a number of physical tasks for you, don’t think this means you have no say in your new everyday life. Look for places where you can exert agency and autonomy. In an attempt to make everyday life as easy as possible for us, our loved ones might overstep or make decisions on our behalf, thinking it’s best to not bother us with these things while we recover; however when we’ve lost our physical independence, our emotional and mental independence is crucial (and can sometimes feel like it’s all we have). If there are areas you’d like less help or decisions you’d like to have more say in, talk to your loved ones and let them know where they can back up a bit and give you more space and autonomy.
  • Be willing to see yourself in a new light. When surgery takes away hobbies and activities that are closely tied to our identity, we often can’t see any other ways to pass the time—but know that dwelling on the past only serves to hinder your ability to move forward. You might have to give up your identity as a tennis player or an all-star runner for a bit (or maybe even forever) but that doesn’t mean you can’t take up new hobbies—like painting, crosswords, writing, reading, volunteering, giving speeches to support groups, etc.—and make these a part of your identity. Again, it’s all about being flexible and looking at what you can do as opposed to what you can’t


Want even more helpful surgery tips? Browse the rest of our blog for empowering pre-op information, helpful nutrition advice, and more!