Physicality of Grieving

Grief is a physical thing.

It’s an ugly, inelegant, awkward, snotty, teary, gloppy thing.  And it’s 100% necessary.

A painful loss sets off a series of biochemical processes that, if not tended to, can have devastating physical consequences on the bereaved. Immediately the body experiences extreme physical stress.  We can feel tightness in the throat, tension, loss of muscular strength, empty stomach, crying, lack of focus, and pain.  Over time, the body can undergo sleep disturbance, change in heart rate and blood pressure, and even decreased immune response.  In other words, you are far less physically capable of handling normal life for a while.

One of my friends – a board-certified emergency physician – once described it to me as “taking a slegdehammer to your nervous system.” And if that doesn’t scare you enough: your odds of surviving a second traumatic event (accident, illness, etc.) drop significantly.

I’m sorry if this depresses you.  I don’t mean to create suffering with this post.  Instead, I want to validate the experience of grief as the physically painful and exhausting process that it is.  Think of it as a sickness that waxes and wanes but won’t fully go away.  Your body is fighting it like it would any other sickness, but it needs assistance from you, the griever.  If you are in a position to give yourself what you need (time off, counseling, travel, healthy food) then please take advantage of it.

But what if you don’t have the time and finances and options to take care of yourself?  Do you just ignore the grief, put on the “I’m fine” mask, and carry on?  No!  Symptoms need to be acknowledged, even if you don’t have the space to treat them.  For those truly awful and overwhelming times, here’s a mental trick to find reserves of self-love and patience that can save your sanity.  I know from personal experience that this works:

  1. Take out a piece of paper and write out the overwhelming obstacles you have to tackle (“Keep being the parent I’m supposed to be,” “Somehow move on in my career”).
  2. Break down that insurmountable obstacle into manageable steps (“Spend every evening with the kids and create amazing memories” “Send out 20 job applications a day”).
  3. Break those steps down into even smaller steps (“Make the kids favorite meal tonight” “Attend one networking event”).
  4. Keep chunking down tasks until you reach a task so easily accomplished that you shrug and think that this isn’t as big a deal anymore (“Drive to the grocery store” “Put on my favorite blazer”).
  5. Go accomplish that task.
  6. Put your hand over your struggling heart and truly thank yourself for a job well done.

You did it!  Your body managed to get out of bed and put on pants.  Sometimes, that will be the big win of the day.  Just remember to forgive yourself over and over again for not doing it all.  You’re sick right now, and your amazing and wise body is handling it the best way it can.