Society incorrectly believes that grief is an emotion. Instead, grief itself is something you experience, which means you “feel” all kinds of emotions as you live it. Grieving impacts your body, mind and spirit as much as any other part of life you experience: vacations, job searches, marriages, divorces, school, and on and on. What are some ways the grief experience affects your physical body, and what can you do to mitigate some of those issues? Let’s talk about that.
Experiencing grief can be paralyzing. You lose the motivation, energy, bandwidth or capacity to move as much as you should. Dealing with recent loss means your body has been ravaged by chaotic changes in schedules and surroundings; long sleepless nights at the bedside of someone sick; the trauma of an unexpected accident, stroke, or heart attack; the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital surrounded by machines and noises and uncertainty. All of this means you do not get enough sleep. You do not eat enough. You may eat too much of things that are filling but not nourishing. Your nervous and immune systems have been producing so much adrenaline and cortisol for so long, that your blood pressure and heart rate, inflammation, aches and pains increase, and your dopamine and serotonin decrease, meaning you have a hard time getting your body to “calm down” and regulate to normal levels again. You are, truly, sick and tired.
Some of the ways you can experience physical grief:
- Sleep problems
- Pain and discomfort
- Many sicknesses, illnesses or infections
- Upset stomach, other digestive issues
- Lack of appetite and weight loss
- Eating too much food that is not nutritious or healthy and weight gain
- Erratic or increased heart activity/rate
All of this is normal, yet all of it can cause permanent damage to your body. Those stories you hear about people dying of a broken heart shortly after the death of a spouse? It’s often true. Studies have shown that the death of a spouse increases the odds of a heart attack by as much as 21% shortly after a death. (AHA Journal) Chances are a person who had been taking care of a spouse, parent or child for weeks or months before a death had been putting their own health or health concerns last. Taking care of a person who is dying is a 24/7 job with little respite available to the caregiver. The caregiver lives in a constant state of turmoil, stress, anxiety, and exhaustion before the death even occurs, often completely neglecting their own health needs, including seeking medical advice or diagnosis for their own health issues that develop or worsen during that time. Add several weeks of intense grief on top of that, and it is not improbable that the griever’s physical body could succumb to the ravages of loss and grief.
Broken hearts and the intensity of physical effects of grief are not always fatal or permanent, though. A broken heart, at least a physical one, can be healed. Even the increased chances of heart attack immediately following a death of a spouse decrease each and every day after the first 24-hours. And broken heart syndrome – a real condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy – also tends to improve over time and can be treated. So grief, despite how it feels at times, is not fatal if you can remember your body experiences grief just as much as the rest of you. The most important thing to do is take care of it as best you can. Here are some quick things that might help your self-care during the intense beginning of a grief experience.
- See your healthcare provider. Especially if you were a caregiver for a person who died, it is time to see your doctor. When you next see your healthcare practitioner, tell them when your person died. The grief you are experiencing should be documented and become a part of your health records.
- Eat a consistent and healthy diet. You may not feel hungry, but your body needs food. You probably will not feel like preparing a whole meal for a while, but, hopefully, you received a lot of food from friends and family that will be easy to prep. Otherwise try to stock your pantry and fridge with healthy protein and raw snacks. And set an alarm to eat. Set a few throughout the day to remind you it is time to have a snack or meal.
- Drink water. Keep a giant bottle or pitcher in the fridge. Put a bottle next to the fridge. Put a pitcher next to your bed. Keep a jug on your coffee table. Put notes on your bathroom mirror, fridge, nightstand, next to a light switch, and on the dash of your car. Like your snack/meal reminder, set a few alarms, and every time you see a water vessel, or a note or hear an alarm, drink water.
- Rest. You may not be able to sleep, but you can rest by closing your eyes for a few seconds. Slowly work up to a few minutes and then a few hours. Try to meditate or be present when you close your eyes. Just listen to your breathing. Listen to the sounds around you. Concentrate on the feelings of the textures around you, the softness of your blanket or the scratchiness of the couch, the feel and sensation of the cool or warm air on your skin. If your mind wanders into the past or future, just focus again on the things right at your fingertips and try to rest again. You could also drink a glass of water and then close your eyes again. (Seriously, drink some water. Right now.) Again, just do it for a few seconds at a time and try to increase how long you can rest, in the present, with your eyes closed throughout the day and the next.
- Move and stretch your body. You may not feel like going to the gym or classes where you will be around other people. Again, the stress and trauma of grief may make your muscles and joints hurt, and even though it seems less painful to remain seated in your favorite chair or lying in bed or on the couch, your body needs and craves movement. Pick one part of your body to gently stretch or move. Again, like everything, try it for a few seconds at first. Do neck rolls. Shrug your shoulders. Make waves with your arms. Bicycle your legs. Take a walk – from room to room or around your back yard, or to the house or building next door and back. Walk up and down a set of stairs. Pick something different and try to do it longer each day.
- Get outside. Sunshine is the body’s best source of Vitamin D. Vitamin D provides many benefits to your body. It helps the body absorb calcium, reduces fatigue and boosts your body’s immune system. For all the ways grief can negatively affect your body, being outside for just 10 minutes can counteract them. Your body heals itself by absorbing Vitamin D through your skin. Fresh air also helps your body functions. And a change of scenery challenges your brain and can even help improve your vision so it changes the way you “see” things in real ways.
Maybe you are not currently in the throes of the grief experience but want to know how best to support a friend or loved one who is. You may have the best intentions when you ask the griever to let you know how to help, but they are more than likely not in a place where they can process well enough to respond to that. So bearing in mind the ways grief effects the body, you can make meaningful efforts to help someone who is grieving.
Send a text and ask if you can make them a doctor’s appointment or volunteer to take them to an appointment.
Bring easy to prepare pre-cooked food or dishes or a bag of pantry staples and fresh fruit and vegetables that do not require prep. Then call or send a text and ask if they’ve eaten or remind them that it’s snack time.
Do the same with water. Text them and remind them they need water. You can’t do this too often, and it requires no response from the person grieving. (By the way, have you drunk your water today? Go ahead and get you a glass right now.)
Bring a care package that includes a favorite scented candle, a comfy textured blanket, a nice set of earbuds, pajamas, slippers, a drinking vessel (drink some water), and an eye mask. Call or send a text and ask how they are sleeping and see if there is a way you might be able to help by making their physical surroundings more comfortable. Maybe they need to make up the guest room bed because they cannot fall asleep in the bed where their spouse slept next to them. Maybe they need to fix a dripping faucet or a noisy ceiling fan so they can improve their sleep environment. Text them a playlist or link to calming, restful music or meditations that might help quiet their minds. If they have a child or an animal or another person or thing which impedes the time they have to rest, offer to take the dog for a walk or take the child for a play date. Take a shift caring for their housebound parent they may be caring for.
Remind them to move or stretch. Again, a quick text or call to remind them, or ask them to join you for a walk or a short yoga session or lap around the pool.
Encourage them to go outside. Stop by on a nice day and help them with yard work. They can just sit and supervise for a minute. Come by and take them for a walk. Invite them to an outdoor event, cookout, craft fair, festival.
Please remember, the person who is grieving may not want to see you, may not respond to you when you make these attempts, and may not be ready to be out with others in public. That’s all normal and okay. You, the supporter, should not take a rejection to mean the griever is rejecting you or your efforts. They just don’t feel like it at that moment in time. The most important thing is that you make the effort, that you continue to reach out and make the effort, and when you do so from a place of compassion and empathy, without trying to “fix” the griever or insert yourself into the narrative, I can guarantee the griever will remember and appreciate all that you did.