"WHY DON'T WE TALK ABOUT THE PHYSICAL ASPECTS OF GRIEF"

Posted by Katrina Taee Katrina Taee
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grief, insomnia, sadness, smoking, drinking, self-harming, sick, ill, physical symptoms
Are you feeling tired, paralysed, inert, heavy, sick, anxious or achy? Have you got pains in your body, is your digestion upset, are you up during the night? Do you feel your memory has evaporated, your concentration is a thing of the past, are you conscious you are talking too much, or do you feel mute? Are you self-harming, drinking too much, eating too much (or too little), smoking a lot or hitting the bottle? Have you been sick with a cold, cough or flu since the death of your loved one?  It’s a tough list, that’s for sure.

You are certainly not alone if you said yes to several of these experiences. All of the above are physical symptoms of grief.

The strange thing is that people don’t talk about them much.

Through 14 years of counselling the bereaved, those who have suffered profound losses and my own experiences of grief, I have come up with a very inexact, totally untested, un-researched theory that grief is about 70% physical and 30% emotional.
 
That might surprise you because most people believe that grief is expressed totally by an emotional response to the death of a loved one. Everyone experiences physical responses to grief, but often they go overlooked, ignored or unconnected to the bereavement. It often comes as a great surprise that I might ask a lot of questions about someone’s physical wellbeing at the first counselling session.

Take a moment to think back to the first 6 months of your bereavement. Looking at the symptoms, in the first paragraph, on reflection, might you have suffered one or more of the physical symptoms?

Disrupted sleep is a very common one. Mourners often have sleep disturbances, it may be that you fall asleep exhausted, but wake in the night and cannot get back to sleep because your mind is whirring. Some people suffer with early morning waking and they nap in the day, too tired to function, but then cannot get to sleep at night. It can quickly become a vicious circle. Tiredness exacerbates grief because it is so much harder to cope when fatigued.

Emotions sit perilously close to the surface and could break through any moment.
 
Do you know for example, that it is quite common to develop similar pains to those your partner may have suffered before their death?  It is often the physical manifestation of your natural anxiety about getting ill yourself.  You may also have very understandable concerns about who will look after you if you get sick (since you did the bulk of caring during your partner or loved one’s illness).

I feel it is very normal and understandable if you turn to excesses when you are grieving.  

More alcohol than usual, too many cigarettes, reaching out or longing for sex, eating too much or taking drugs (either over the counter ones or illegal substances) are all ways you may unconsciously or consciously choose to numb your mind and body. Truthfully, I think they work in the short term.  The knack is to realise when it is becoming a problem, a habit or you say to yourself, "this just isn’t really me." I reassure clients that they are not the first ones to turn to these things as a way to feel better. Most people will stop as their bereavement progresses and their experiences and feelings start to even out a bit and they develop other ways of coping.

What can help? 

Finding support helps.  Be brave, ask friends, family and neighbours to help, find some spiritual guidance, read a book which ‘calls to you’, walk in nature, get on the  internet and look for a bereavement forum or find a counsellor, grief supporter or bereavement group to attend.

Be mindful of your need to be gentle with yourself, don’t beat yourself up about that bottle of wine, those cigarettes or the chocolate cake but accept that you needed it at the time, “it’s OK.”  Try to hold onto hope that things can be different.  Your feelings will slowly change, I don’t know how that will turn out but it will not be like it is now.  Honestly.

If you think counselling might be something you would like to explore then contact me and we can have a chat.

If you have experienced physical symptoms of grief, do share here to help others.

 Photo Credit: M. Dolly / Foter / CC BY-SA