My grandmother was 97 and our family knew she was nearing the end of her life. She lived a full and relatively healthy life. However, that didn’t mean there was an easy way to say goodbye to someone that’s been with me since day one.
I sat by her side as she cried to me in pain, begging to die. She was in pain and suffering and I sensed it would be my last time to hold, see, and talk to her.
When she passed a few days later, I felt a sense of relief. She was no longer suffering. Although I started crying when I got the call, there was a lightness that took over as if I was being lifted out of my own body.
Then, after a couple of days, physical manifestations of grief set in.
I remember the months after my grandmother passed clearly, as they were marked with physical sensations I had never experienced before in my life.
I walked around feeling like I was carrying 20 extra pounds in my body. My stomach was in knots, my breath was shortened, my appetite vanished, and it felt like I was navigating life in a fog. My concentration vanished, I could feel my body drooping, and my mental health suffered.
When my grandmother left this earth, so did a piece of me. I knew her death was coming, yet there was nothing that could prepare me for the physical effects of grief.
When someone we love passes away, whether it’s unexpected or not, our emotional and mental well-being isn’t the only thing at stake. The physical effects our bodies encounter after the loss of a loved one can range from mild to extreme and have no clear time table.
Days, weeks, months, and years go by and we can often still feel the physical turbulence in our bodies sparked by the death of a loved one.
The physical effects of grief don’t go away on demand and everyone’s experience is different.
While some people report vomiting and shortness of breath, others experience hair loss, weight loss, and even heart attacks.
If you or a loved one is going through the loss of a loved one, know that you’re not alone. Even though the symptoms of grief can vary for individuals, experiencing grief is a universal human experience and something most of us will go through in our life-time.
While I’m still dealing with my own physical effects 9 months later, I have researched and learned first-hand that there are healing practices and coping mechanisms that can help us process devastating loss and lessen the load over time.
My goal is to help you understand the physical symptoms of grief and how you can take steps to process the grief in a healthy way.
The emotional response to the loss of a loved one sends our body into a severe state of stress. A surge of stress hormones is released into our bloodstream, sending our body into shock.
The intensity and duration of symptoms depends on the individual body’s response to these stress hormones. The acute stress surfaces as physical symptoms like:
Additionally, other responses to acute stress and a weakened immune system that may be present with grief include but are not limited to:
As you can see from this long list of physical symptoms, grief is not something to be taken lightly. While we are mentally trying to process the emotions of losing a loved one, our bodies are on overdrive attempting to do the same.
Let’s dive in to what’s happening with the primary symptoms of grief.
As our body gets a release of stress hormones, all of our internal resources are on overdrive trying to repair and restore everything back to normal. This can leave us feeling exhausted and heavy in the time following the death of a loved one.
“I went from being very active to curled up in a fetal position for about 6 months.”
During grief your body needs rest. Give yourself permission to rest during this time as your body is signaling to you to take it easy. A big part of your life just left, and it will take time for your energy levels to get back to normal.
Be patient and kind to yourself and take a nap if your body is asking for it.
The stress associated with grief can trigger extreme discomfort in our bodies. Headaches, migraines, overall muscular pain and heaviness are all common symptoms following loss and can even feel like the flu. Grief can also increase the severity of existing physical ailments in older adults.
And unfortunately, crying, a common reaction to death, can also intensify these aches.
There are ways to comfort this pain with ibuprofen, cold compresses, and other aids in the short-term, but be careful to not rely on numbing as a tactic to run away from the symptoms of grief (more on this later).
We carry a lot of our stress in our stomach, which can lead to eating and digestive issues. The feeling of your stomach being tied in knots, nausea, stomach pain, and diarrhea are all very common responses to our body’s stress response.
During this time, it’s extremely important to get nutrients your body needs, even if you’re not hungry. Aim to eat three meals a day so that your body can have the fuel to get back on track. Stay away from spicy, acidic, and exotic foods that put extra pressure on your digestive system.
There’s also a tendency for some to use eating as a tactic to numb the reality of intense emotions. Therefore, overeating and weight loss can also become a problem for some.
If you’re not able to maintain a healthy balanced diet because of your physical response to grief, call a friend or visit your doctor to get support during this time. Remember, you don’t need to do this alone and your body needs you now more than ever.
The emotional stress and ruminating thoughts that accompany grief can leave us up all night and restless. On the flip side, the fatigue of emotional stress can also lead us to oversleep and wake feeling drowsy and wanting more sleep.
Do what you can to get outside during the day to expose yourself to Vitamin D to help regulate your circadian rhythm for a more regular sleep.
And if you’re having a hard time falling asleep due to racing thoughts, try listening to guided meditation for sleep to help you relax into a restful sleep.
According to Harvard Health, “extreme stress, the kind experienced after the loss of a loved one, is associated with changes in heart muscle cells or coronary blood vessels (or both) that prevent the left ventricle from contracting effectively, a condition called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or broken-heart syndrome. The symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack: chest pain and shortness of breath.”
The feeling of a broken heart is real and to be taken seriously.
If you’re having problems breathing and/or chest pains, do not hesitate to see your primary doctor for professional help. Start by letting them know you’re experiencing the loss of a loved one and would like to make sure everything is okay with your heart health.
With time spent crying and everything else going on in your body at this time, it’s common to become dehydrated and experience dry mouth.
Your body needs extra liquids during this time to maintain balance. Carry a water bottle with you and drink water even when you’re not thirsty. Do your best to limit soda and caffeinated drinks.
If you’re not sure if you’re hydrated, use the color of your urine as a proxy for your hydration levels. The clearer the better.
If you drive a car on full-throttle for an extended period of time, it will only be a matter of time until something breaks. The same thing is true with your body as it is going through the grieving process.
Since your body is operating on overdrive pumping stress hormones, you’re more susceptible to disease and other health issues. Under the hood, immune cell function suffers and inflammatory responses rise in people who are grieving.
“I've developed bronchitis several times.”
As you navigate grief keep this in mind. Do your best to keep your hands and face clean, keep your distance from sick people, and maintain healthy exercise, nutrition, sleep, and leisure.
Losing someone close feels like the world is being shattered to pieces, leaving confusion, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating.
It’s common to become preoccupied with thoughts and intense yearning of the loved one.
“My brain is really struggling with directions. I used to be able to know directions or to find my way around. Shortly after I lost my Dad ... I lost my Mom 21 days later and since then my navigation system is screwed.”
If you’re feeling foggy and forgetful, take advantage of to-do lists, schedules, calendar reminders, and phone alerts to help keep you on task. Over time, the fog should dissipate.
Mental health conditions are also extremely common with grief and can also manifest into additional physical symptoms if they are left unrecognized and untreated. Conditions includes:
Everyone’s brain and body react differently during grief and some may benefit from medication in the short-term to level out the imbalance in hormones while long-term tactics like therapy and holistic treatments are employed simultaneously.
If you are experiencing any of these conditions or if your grief symptoms worsen, it’s important to see your doctor. This way you can get professional direction from your doctor that will help you get back on track for healthy healing.
“I went to the emergency room, the doctor thought I had heart failure but I didn't, I had an anxiety attack. The doctor told me that I need to control my emotions or I could die from heart disease. I got it under control. This was 8 years ago.”
As you can see from the long list of physical symptoms of grief, there’s no one answer to grief.
There are band aids we can put on top of the pain to help make it go away, but true healing occurs when we turn towards the pain, sit with it, and learn to live a new normal.
The best way to move forward is to start focusing on what you can control today.
Make a commitment to better yourself slowly, day after day. Begin to heal by gradually putting your shattered heart back together.
Do it for your loved one, because the last thing they would want to see is you suffering.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a great way to turn towards the pain and become aware of how it is impacting your body and thoughts.
To start, you can take a free 8-week online course that teaches you why and how mindfulness works and gives you the resources you need to practice in the comfort of your own home.
You can then use mindfulness to bring you back to your breath and the present moment over and over. A skill that will allow you to begin managing your emotions and regulating the stress hormones that cause the physical symptoms of grief.
Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night at the same time every night. If you need to take a nap during the day, allow yourself to rest.
To help with your sleep, try the following:Use guided meditations (e.g. InsightTimer) to help you enter a restful state. Get outside into sunlight for 15 minutes in the morningDrop lavender oil on your pillow before sleepAvoid using electronics with blue light when the sun goes down
Eat 3 meals a day with sufficient calories, protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Ensure you’re getting vegetables at least once a day and ideally with every meal.
Even if it’s a 5 minute walk outside every day to start, do something to move your body. Overtime, add to your walk or add additional movement to get your heart rate elevated and your body sweating.
Nature is extremely rejuvenating for your mind, body, and soul. Even if you simply lay in the grass at a nearby park or in a hammock in your backyard, get outside and practice being mindful with the smells, sounds, sights, and textures around you.
While it will feel weird to get back out into normal life with a broken heart and physical symptoms of grief, the happy hormones you get from being around other people will help you in the long-term.
Try calling a friend or family member and asking them to join you for something low key to start. Maybe inviting them over for tea at your house or meeting you in the park for a walk.
Leisure and having fun is something that will help you start to live your life again. Is there something you can do that honors your loved one’s life?
When you feel ready, try adding something to your schedule and stick with it. The hardest part will likely be showing up.
Finding a grief counselor or a support group can help you feel less alone during this difficult chapter of life. Search online for local support groups near you.
While it will be easy to numb the pain of loss with things like alcohol, cigarettes and other unhealthy coping mechanisms, it will be crucial for your long-term recovery to stay clear of these substances.
Remember, turning towards the pain will help you heal in the long-term and you don’t have to do it alone. Grief counselors and therapists are trained to help you navigate the complexity of feelings and physical symptoms you’re experiencing.
The physical effects of grief are staggering and unlike any other life circumstances. Know that whatever you’re feeling right now is very normal and you are exactly where you need to be.
Be kind to yourself, seek help, and know that you are here because of the strength of your love for another being.
Life will never be quite the same without your loved one, but with time and space, you will learn to live a new normal.
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