The process of organ transplantation is a multi-faceted and intense experience that encompasses a long journey.
From finding out you are experiencing organ failure, to the loss of your native organ, to the integration of a new organ from either a deceased or living donor, there are many stages to move through. This major transition in life is marked with an emphasis on the physical body, and yet the experience itself is not strictly medical.
It’s important to consider not only our physical wellbeing, but also our mental, spiritual, and emotional wellness. A holistic approach to care can create conditions to not only survive post transplant but thrive.
Transplant is a medical word to explain the unique process of taking an organ from a donor and placing it in a recipient, with the goal of restoring health. During this time, a lot of emphasis is placed on the body and the function of the organ. It can be disorienting and confusing, and is often marked with feelings of loneliness, anger and grief.
A part of you is gone and something new takes its place.
A new relationship needs to then be forged between donor and recipient, which can be further complicated if the organ came from a deceased donor. It’s a whole new world, and while patients are prepped on medications to take and what to avoid, there is little training on how to handle the emotions that come with such an intense process.
The Need for Ceremony
Creating an Organ Transplant Ceremony can help you acknowledge what was, what is, and what will be as you transition through the different stages of the transplant journey.
The emotions you may experience in the transplant process can range from relief to deep sorrow. It is not an experience to take lightly, nor is it a matter of simply receiving the transplant and crossing a finish line. The entire process takes a toll on the body, mind and spirit of an individual and their loved ones, dramatically reshaping life as it once was.
There are very distinct yet interconnected parts of processing the loss of the organ you once had, embracing life and death in a way that perhaps didn’t exist before, and integrating back into life post transplant, creating the new normal not only medically but as a whole person.
The Role of Trauma
This already complex journey can be further complicated with medications that can alter one’s mental function as side effects, and pain interfering with thought processing. So much information is provided all at once, and it can often feel like there isn’t a good way to keep up.
Everything can feel like an emergency, adding trauma to an already stressful situation.
The hospital environment can be busy, necessary isolation can turn into intense feelings of loneliness, and the level of activity and constant parallels of life and death happening all around can be exhausting.
Embodied trauma has been linked to physical symptoms such as headache, nausea and increased heart rate, and in the high stakes field of transplant medicine, emotional resilience and post operative emotional care can improve long term quality of life. The ability of the body to store and process trauma should not be overlooked. Even in moments where the mind is not conscious of what is happening, the body is keeping detailed notes, and this cellular memory is important to address.
Receiving a transplant changes a life, but it doesn’t have to be the end of it. Instead, it can mark the entry into a new life.
These are a few of the rituals we developed, with the guidance of Ali Hiebert, to support anyone on a transplant journey. You can learn more about these rituals, including what to prepare and how to perform them, by creating your own Organ Transplant Ceremony in our platform:
Say goodbye to a part of your body before or after surgery and hold space to share any feelings that arise.
Hold each plate or breakable object and think of an emotion or thought you’d like to release or let go of as you safely smash it.
Draw an outline of your body to acknowledge all that it’s been through.
Create a jar full of reminders you think you’ll need to hear moving forward.
There is no right way to deal with needing an organ transplant, and yet adequate support, tools for emotional processing, and approaching the situation from a holistic perspective (rather than separating the medical from the emotional) can have an effect on recovery and the integration process.
Some ways to begin integrating the emotional experience of transplantation include:
- Talking about your experience with a close friend, family member or trained mental health professional (if you don’t have access to mental health support, ask your transplant coordinator or social worker! It’s their job to support you through this process.)
- Connecting with others who have experienced the same thing can also be helpful, whether this is in person support groups or online forums.
- Creating your own rituals to give yourself a framework to draw from and a practice to come back to.
While it can feel like life has been consumed by transplant, the truth is this experience is just a small portion of an entire person, and ritual can help you remember who you are, what you value, and how this experience has shaped you.
Read Ali’s personal story on our blog: A Liver Transplant Ceremony