The physical impact of grief can affect the body in many ways. There are a great number of studies into varying ways in which grief can affect the body. It is known to increase inflammation, to weaken the immune system, increase blood pressure and adrenaline as well as causing heart problems.
Grieving is not the same for everyone and can be quite complex, influencing both mental and physical health. This article discusses the physical impact of grief, explaining what it is, how it affects the body and how best to try to manage it.
What is grief?
Grief is a natural process that is our human way of emotional healing. The impact of grief can manifest in a number of ways, namely behaviourally, cognitively, with physical sensations and feelings.
- Behaviourally – sleep disturbance with vivid dreams and /or nightmares, diminished appetite or comfort eating, avoidance of people and bouts of crying.
- Cognition – mental processes such as thinking, remembering, judging and problem-solving may be affected through disbelief, confusion or hallucinations.
- Physical sensations – these include tightness in the chest or throat, breathlessness, lack of energy and dry mouth.
- Feelings – Numbness, shock, fear, guilt, relief, anger, resentment and depression.
Grief is a natural reaction to loss, which manifests itself in emotional pain or sadness. It can occur when you lose someone or something that you care about.
How does grief affect the body?
The physical impact of grief is dependent on many different factors including your relationship with the person that has died, the support you have around you and any previous experiences of grief. You may find some or all of the following affects you:
- Changes in appetite and digestion
- Sleep patterns
- Physical pain, discomfort and illness
- Difficulty with daily activities
Your appetite may decrease or increase
Often after the death of a loved one, you may not feel like eating. Food may taste strange, and you may have difficulty in swallowing. Conversely you may find that you are eating a lot more than you normally would as food provides you some comfort. It’s important to try not to worry; this is quite normal in the process of grieving. There are some steps you can take to help to manage these symptoms including making small portions if you have lost your appetite and if you don’t feel like cooking, making easy meals such as soups or ready prepared, nutritious meals. However, if these unusual eating habits continue, it may be worth seeing your doctor.
Sleeping patterns may change
Sleeping patterns may also change and it’s quite normal to experience problems sleeping. You may have difficulty going to sleep because your mind is full of thoughts and you may worry about having nightmares. Again, it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself. Try to find ways that help you return to your former nighttime routine. You may find exercise will tire your body, or listening to relaxing music or a podcast will help to quieten the mind. Some people find taking a shower or a bath before going to bed can help to relax the body, using magnesium salts to help bring a natural sense of relaxation. Most importantly, make sure you do not go to bed before you’re ready to sleep.
Anxiety can make you feel breathless or have a panic attack
Anxiety is a physical impact of grief often associated with the death of a loved one. You may feel breathless, have heart palpitations, or even suffer from panic attacks. To reduce tension, try to exercise, gently at first. Try talking to relatives and friends and seek professional help if you are really struggling. There are many professional organisations who can give support and help. These have trained members of staff who can offer guidance, so you can make sense of how you are feeling.
Physical pain is often associated with the death of a loved one
Grief can affect your whole body, and you may find your immune system is very low, and it is difficult to fight off minor infections. The pain of the death of someone close to you will ease with time, although if it persists for weeks and weeks, seek professional health.
- Affective – depression, despair, anxiety, guilt, anger, shock, loneliness, pining, irritability
- Cognitive – Preoccupation with the deceased, sense of unreality, memory, concentration difficulties, lowered self-esteem
- Behavioural – agitation, fatigue, over activity, weeping, social withdrawal
- Physiological – loss of appetite, sleep problems, energy loss
The Physical impact of grief in children
These may be different to adults and include headaches, stomach pains as well as trouble sleeping. Children can also have nightmares and experience changes in appetite. Children may also struggle at school and have low confidence and self-esteem. The physical impact of grief on children may include being clingy, showing aggression, being distant, angry and having difficulties concentrating. It may also be difficult for them to understand their feelings and why they are feeling as they do. Again, all children are different and they particularly need reassurance and that it is OK to talk of the death of the loved one and to ask questions.
How to help a friend or family member who is grieving
Avoid trying to fix or rescue the situation as the person grieving may feel that their pain is not being seen or heard or is in fact valid. It’s also important not to force yourself on that person even though you are desperate to help. Don’t encourage them to talk; they will do this when they are ready. The best thing is to give them space, but to be there and to be available when they need you. If a friend or family member is grieving, it is important they look after themselves, accept the situation and reach out for social support.
- Talk to family and friends
- Exercise, including walking, yoga and Pilates
- Spend time in nature
- Get enough sleep
- Seek help from a doctor or professional counsellor
How to manage the physical impact of grief
The Five stages of grief was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who suggests a person goes through five distinct stages following the death of a loved one. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
- Denial – helps to minimise the overwhelming pain of loss. Often it is difficult to believe that an important person will no longer be in our daily lives. Reality shifts to reflect on the experiences shared with the person that has died. This stage slows the process so you are not overwhelmed by emotions and you can go through it one step at a time.
- Anger – a time to adjust to the new reality. Anger may give you an emotional outlet, as death seems so cruel and unfair. Many people feel there is less fear of judgement or rejection by showing anger than just admitting they are scared. When releasing emotions, anger can be the first thing we feel, although it can leave us feeling isolated in the experience.
- Bargaining - people may feel so desperate that they will do anything to minimise and even alleviate the pain. Bargaining gives a way to change the situation whereby they agree to do something in return for being relieved of the pain they are feeling. It can also be directed to a higher power and can also give a feeling of control over a situation that is so out of control.
- Depression - during the processing period, people will slowly start to look at the reality of the situation. They may be feeling the loss even more and retreat inwardly becoming less sociable and reaching out less. This is one of the most difficult stages of the grieving process.
- Acceptance - this does not mean that the pain is no longer felt, but the reality of the situation has been accepted, and people are not trying to make it something different from what it is.
How to get help?
There are organisations that offer bereavement support to help people through this very difficult time in their lives.
How can CPJ Field help?
The variety of physical symptoms that you experience following the death of a loved one is part of the grieving process. The physical impact of grief is different for everyone and following the death of a loved one, there is no right or wrong way to feel. It’s also true that not everyone experiences grief when someone dies, however, in most cases normal grief does not require professional intervention. It is a natural, instinctive response to death, with healing being a gradual natural outcome, particularly when aided by the support of friends and family. You do not have to go through it alone. At CPJ Field, we know that dealing with grief is very hard, so we are here to help you as much as possible with your funeral arrangements. Our focus is on arranging a truly bespoke funeral service, but we can also assist with all aspects associated with death including grief and counselling.