Grief can breed loneliness and loneliness can lead to depression, which can then trigger “grief” over your situation—your feeling of hopelessness and loss of joy for life. With the sudden slaying of your dreams, you can feel lost, purposeless, floundering. It’s often a vicious cycle that leaves you feeling like you’re churning away endlessly, hopelessly on a hamster wheel. And while most people would quickly associate emotional pain with grief, they would not associate physical pain with it.
We always seem to want quick answers without first understanding, or at least appreciating, the underlying causes. So let’s start with the basics. We’ll begin by looking at how grief can cause physical pain.
It is important to recognize that grief places a tremendous amount of physical stress on the brain and body. Because of that, the first thing you need to do, (particularly in the acute stages of grief), is to be good to yourself. Rest more. Reduce your commitments.
Now I can hear many of you saying, “But that sounds selfish. Don’t I need to be doing things for others?” Yes, but in time. All in good time.
Your body can produce “stress hormones” or chemicals that flood and overload your system and wear you out physically. Your brain also produces chemicals—neurotransmitters—that end up taxing your brain, and, in turn, tax the rest of your body.
According to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, there are physical symptoms of grieving, like:
Ands Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. writes in his article “Healing Your Grieving Body: “Physical Practices for Mourners”, a grieving person needs to provide herself with physical nurturing.
He points out that one literal definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering?” He also explores how the body tries “to slow you down” in preparation for mourning and explains some of the accompanying physical symptoms.
Loss of sleep and low energy. Evidently this symptom is so common that the term “lethargy of grief” has been applied to it. Ever feel that way in your grief? Lethargic, run down, exhausted? You may tire easily, and even feel fatigued as soon as your feet hit the floor in the morning. When you’re experiencing any of these symptoms during your grief, it’s a sign that you need added rest. You may try to fight this, especially because it unlikely adds to your feeling of loss of control and loneliness, but don’t fight it.
There are numerous additional physical manifestations of grief. Dr. Wolfert identifies some of them in his article:
Shortness of breath
Feelings of emptiness in your stomach
Chest or throat tightness
Digest problems (Scientists are just discovering and learning to appreciate the
critical gut-brain connection.)
Allergy issues and symptoms
Weight loss or gain
Agitation or anxiety
For too many years, people who suffered these grief and mourning systems did not associate them with their grief. After a myriad of tests for physical ailments found no definite cause, doctors sometimes labeled the cause of disease as idiopathic—arising spontaneously or from an unknown or obscure cause; or peculiar to an individual (merriam-webster.com). Some doctors weren’t as kind in their diagnosis, especially with women patients. They simply wrote “Psychosomatic” as the cause. In other words, pain a patient had due to mental or emotional problems rather than physical illness. You know, “It’s all in their head!” (In other words: They made it up, or they are manifesting it just to get attention.)
Is grief pain emotional? Anyone who has suffered through it would probably give you an emphatic “Yes!” Can it be driven by what’s going on in your brain? Of course. But not necessarily in the way the psychosomatic diagnosis was originally intended. Brain chemicals being dumped into the nervous and immune systems causes physical changes to the body. And with the digestive tract being such an important factor in the immune system function (another fact scientists are just discovering and appreciating), it stands to reason that when the brain is suffering the entire body can suffer; and when the digestive tract is struggling, so struggles the brain.
As Wolfert goes on to say, “Your body is so very wise. It will try to slow you down and invite you to authentically mourn the losses that touch your life…We mourn life losses from the inside out…it is only when we care for ourselves physically that we can integrate our losses emotionally and spiritually.” (Emphasis mine)
One thing that happens to us is that we feel the need to sleep more than usual. It is a way for us to “give in” to the reality, or to escape it. I remember wanting to do nothing but sleep. At least during sleep, I didn’t have to confront my pain, or anyone else; I was oblivious to the pain and life, which seemed to be rolling along quite nicely and regularly despite my agony. I even asked my doctor to refill my pain medication (for surgical pain) not because I needed it, but because I just wanted to sleep. In sleep, I could avoid the world. But we can rebel against the need to sleep because we don’t want to feel any more out of control than we already are. It sets up a paradox: Needing more sleep and trying to resist the need.
Grief is stressful, and that stress can tax your immune system and make you more vulnerable to illness, particularly if you already suffer from a physical ailment. Your body may be telling you it’s on overload, that it needs the extra rest. Healing sleep—for it is in sleeping phase of living that your body heals and repairs—is a critical part of your recovery. You may not think of it that way, but you are recovering—from shock, psychological trauma, stress.
When you feel grief, you feel sick. When you feel sick, you feel despair. When you feel desperate, you feel alone, and the loneliness makes your despair even more pronounced. It deepens your sorrow, sometimes to the point of feeling so alone and so hopeless that the only way you can describe it is in terms of death. It feels like you are a dead man walking. A dead man existing. And that’s depressing. You are prone to weeping. Your thoughts and conversations are depressed. As David writes in Psalm 116,
“Death stared me in the face,
hell was hard on my heels.
Up against it, I didn’t know what way to turn;” (The Message)
Have you ever felt that way in grief? As though death and hell were hard on your heels, dogging you, not letting up, breathing down your neck? Unwilling to let you and your heart, mind and body go? It’s exhausting. And battling against it is sometimes even more exhausting. Sometimes you just have to “go with it.” Recognize that this is a normal feeling of grief that you need to accept and lean into, at least temporarily.
Remind yourself it’s okay. Remind yourself that God has not planned and orchestrated some conspiracy against you. Remind yourself that you don’t have to feel guilty, a feeling that is common in survivors.
Are societal pressures telling you to stay busy, get over it, don’t dwell on it, or leave it in the past? These well-meaning utterances could be thrown out by people who might be a wee bit uncomfortable in the presence of a mourner. Smile and thank them for their advice, and then listen to what your body is telling you. The grief process should not be “suspended” because you don’t want to acknowledge it. It won’t go away simply because you wish it to disappear and leave you alone.
As Wolfert says, you need to “embrace feelings of loss.” Wrap your arms around it. He also writes, “As you know, your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from the outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and be kind and gentle to it. The quality of your life ahead depends on how you care for your body today. The lethargy of grief you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.”
Do you rebel against the thought and advice of “self-care?” Does that concept seem “wrong” to you?
Next week we’ll look more at pain and self-care in grief and loneliness and the importance it holds for complete, lasting recovery.
Until next week,
Thanks for joining me!