Hearing Tinnitus, Grieving Silence

The 5 Stages of Grief and Tinnitus

By Siobhan McGinnity
BSc., MClinAud, M Aud., PhD (Candidate)

It’s been years since I first tuned into the sound of my high-pitched tinnitus. Initially a ghost that only visited post gig or long night out, it suddenly appeared on a mundane afternoon with absolutely no reason at all. At first I thought it would go away, so I ignored it. But then, it crept up and up in volume, getting to the point where even following conversation was difficult against its competing hiss. I lost sleep, I googled answers, I self-diagnosed tumours - you name it, I did it. I went on the panic train that many people do, looking for a cure that doesn’t exist and demonising a part of my body that had simply made a mistake.

The five stages of grief are often imagined as a linear process, a stair-case up towards a more peaceful you. In reality, however, it's a hot-mess, twisting and turning in every which way.

Years on, and as a trained audiologist, I now lecture in and counsel on tinnitus. While tinnitus is a highly unique experience, too often I would see the same patterns repeating themselves in my clients; some seething with fury, others bargaining for their ‘reason’, and some stagnant, immobilised with depression. One day it just clicked for me and I asked one of them, “Has it occurred to you that you might be grieving?”

Grief isn’t just for the loss of a loved one, it’s for a loss. And what could be more painful than the loss of silence? It’s the best friend you never knew you had. The companion that let you read a book in quiet, meditate and hear only the trees, or fall asleep to nothing at all. It underpins each moment of relaxation, and when you take that away, for some, you make being relaxed a hell of a lot harder.

We don’t often acknowledge the emotional side in audiology, but with tinnitus we absolutely should - its intrusiveness linked to our emotional state, stress and anxiety.  So, I started talking about grief with my clients and watching the difference it made. For many, it gave them a structure to pin their experience to, for others, self-forgiveness as to why they had been so angry. Each response was different, but each was positive.

Grief isn’t just for the loss of a loved one, it’s for a loss. And what could be more painful than the loss of silence? It’s the best friend you never knew you had.

The five stages of grief are often imagined as a linear process, a stair-case up towards a more peaceful you. In reality, however, it's a hot-mess, twisting and turning in every which way. With that in mind, here are the five stages of grief and how they might relate to you. 

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Denial

The first stage is the classic moment of shock. How could this be happening to you, what is happening to you, it can’t be permanent, it will go away, you’re fine etc., etc. In many ways, the shock element of this process helps us cope with the sudden change. It has a place in our healing.

Anger

Anger is an energetic phase: it can feel a lot like a fire needing to burn and burn out. Blaming is often involved and shots can be fired, at others, at situations, at yourself. More often than not, it’s the latter. Stopping to recognise that every time you’re angry towards the tinnitus, you’re directing anger inwards towards a part of yourself can be a real eye opener for some. If you injured your knee, would you then blame your knee for the injury?

Bargaining

There’s a reason tinnitus ‘cures’ do so well on the internet, even if there is absolutely no evidence to back them up. The trade of money, time and resources in the search for an answer is rife. If I have this tea, maybe I’ll be better, If I buy this gadget, maybe it will work. Until someone realises they can’t bargain away their tinnitus, it can be very difficult to move forward. Still, it too has its place; it’s only natural for our minds to search for ways out of situations we didn’t choose or want to be in.

Depression

The black dog rears its head in many ways. The sadness or emptiness surrounding loss is felt not only for the absence of silence, but all the things you enjoyed that came with it. It includes the imagined loss of things you might find harder in the future. It can feel like you’re grieving not just the moment, but all the moments your mind lets you imagine.

Acceptance

This is not to be confused with happiness. To accept something doesn’t mean to go skipping through town with glee, it means to face the reality of something with calm, acknowledging the situation for what it is, and finding a way to move forward. When we come to accept our tinnitus, we’re letting ourselves accept that part of our mind that slipped up and made an error that one time – letting in a signal we were supposed to keep out and has decided to stay. There’s no fault to lay, it is what it is, and you still have a future.

Research tells us that those who manage best with their tinnitus are those who can find acceptance in it all. It lets our hypervigilant minds stop looking for the ‘answer’, sending the signal to the background where it can rest. This may not be possible for us all, but in grief the process starts. Hearing tinnitus means losing silence, and a loss of any kind gives you the right to grieve.


If you are experiencing feelings of loss and sadness and would like to talk to someone about it, the following resources might be of help:

Resources: Tinnitus Association Victoria // British Tinnitus Association

Audiology: The University of Melbourne Audiology Clinic

Support: Lifeline // Find a Psychologist