How The Body Cries: Physical Grief

There is nothing quite like the loss of a loved one to knock the stuffing out of you.  Grief has a breathtaking power to turn your whole world inside out in an instant.  Even when it’s anticipated, all death is somehow unexpected and shocking. 

While we’re perhaps somewhat prepared for the emotional side of loss, we are rarely prepared for the physical effects that are commonly part of grieving.  Your body and brain have their own distinct grieving process.  

Recognizing grief’s common physical symptoms can help lessen any distress you may feel about them if they arise.  Knowing about them can also help you offer effective practical support for folks who are enduring a loss.

Grief packs a surprisingly physical punch.  

We seem to have a reasonable familiarity with the emotional side of grief.  Denial, bargaining, depression, anger, acceptance–these stages are common knowledge.  Because of this, they are an intense and painful but not unknown part of the process.

The body’s grieving process however, is just as layered and profound.  Many people, regardless of age, gender, and physical health, share common physical experiences:

  • Bereaved bodies are tender.  Many people experience an increase in body aches and pains, and headaches. Old injuries can sometimes resurface.  It is not uncommon to have an increase in sensitivity to therapies and treatments as well.  
  • Grieving bodies are T-I-R-E-D.  Emotional distress puts huge strain on the nervous system. Between dealing with the mundane logistics of death, changes to household rhythms, and shifts in responsibilities, the elements of simultaneous change are exhausting.  
  • Distressed bodies sleep poorly, if at all.  Grief is stressful on body and mind.  Sustained system-wide distress can make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult.  Insomnia is very common.  Poor sleep impacts immunity and can contribute to an increase in inflammation.
  • Grief impacts cardiac function.  Many people report shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.  Research suggests there is an increased risk of heart attack, and changes to clotting after loss. 
  • Emotional strain disrupts appetite and digestion.  Folks who are grieving often have less appetite and pleasure in food.  Stress can trigger existing digestive problems such as indigestion, ulcers, heartburn, and can worsen symptoms of bowel disorders. 
  • Grief impacts brain function.  Grieving bodies often experience short-term memory loss, forgetfulness, fuzzy thinking, and poor concentration.
  • Bereavement can trigger depression and anxiety. With loss, there is often a lot of change, overwhelm, and a sense of sudden instability. As with other types of trauma, grief can lead to mood disturbance and anxiousness.  

Gently Does It

Grief is a complex beast.  Because every loss is unique, every person’s experience of it will vary.  The one universal component of grief however, is that it puts enormous strain on your body.  

For this reason, it’s useful to remember that your physical recovery may not match the timing of your emotional recovery.   Even once the most acute emotions have lessened, your physical healing may still be in progress.   

Sweat It Out

Gentle activities like walking or stretching can be a huge help, especially in early days when your energy is low and tension is high. Simply getting moving in whatever way feels good is a great way to start. However, it’s good to bear in mind that your energy reserves might not have their usual depth.

More intense exercise can also be a major ally in processing grief.  Exercise not only helps lift your mood, it can improve sleep, relieve tension, restore appetite, and bolster immunity.  

Perhaps best of all, exercise can give you a welcome sense of progress, satisfaction, and achievement, especially in the wake of upheaval and change.  Feeding the strength of your body can be an empowering reminder of your own capacity and resilience after being kneecapped by loss.

Finding The Best Way Forward

Grieving bodies are like any injured body–they need to be supported in a mindful way.  Much like you would change your activities when rehabilitating an injury, it is necessary to make adjustments that promote your physical recovery from grief as well.  

Complementary healthcare practices that focus on pain relief, relaxation, and nervous system support can be a particularly helpful part of this process.  Because of this, massage, acupuncture, and self-care treatments like MELT are especially worthwhile options for your coping toolkit.  

Whether it’s your own grieving process you are navigating or someone else’s, the best way forward is the same:

Treat your grieving body kindly.

This article first appeared as a guest blog post for Moving Spirit Pilates in March 2019.  You can see the original here:

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