Grief and the Body: The Physical Toll of Loss

I remember the day I found out that my baby girl Selah had died. It felt like the world had temporarily stopped moving on its axis. The room around me seemed to go darker, and suddenly I could see the nurse’s mouth moving but no sound was coming out. For the days and weeks that followed, in addition to the emotional symptoms wreaking havoc on my body, some odd physical symptoms occurred. My body ached like it had been hit by a truck; my heart was literally throbbing, as if it may actually crack in half. I had no appetite. I couldn’t eat because I was so nauseous, knowing I would never hold my daughter in my arms. Similarly, after my mom died, my body felt heavy. I was unable to do normal activities, and I had more infections and viruses that year than I had in the past 5 years combined. I couldn’t focus, I was forgetful, and sometimes I was just sure I was losing my mind.  These physical symptoms were the result of the intense feelings that come with mourning and loss.

You won’t find “grief” listed as a condition in any medical books or manuals, but the physical and emotional symptoms that come along with it take a toll on our bodies nonetheless. As a society, we tend to focus more heavily on the emotional aspects of loss, because those feelings are relatable. We understand them and have felt them before. But grief impacts our bodies in so many other ways, it is almost impossible to list them all.  Many of the most common physical complaints regarding grief come from the immune, cardiovascular, digestive, and/or nervous systems. Our immune system helps us to ward off common colds, diseases, and other infections. While we are grieving our bodies are physically run down and not as able to easily fight off illnesses. As for our cardiovascular systems, some
common side effects related to grief can include increased heart rate, chest pain, and/or increased blood pressure. Many people, as I did, will say something like, “It feels like my heart is physically breaking,” or “aching.” And oddly enough, there actually is a condition called Takotsubo Syndrome or “broken heart syndrome.” This disease can mimic a heart attack, causing shortness of breath and chest pains. That is the heart aching, physically throbbing in the body. We ache to hold our babies, to take them home with us, and to love them as part of our daily lives. Additionally, our digestive systems are extremely sensitive and reactive to stress, and grief may cause extreme gastrointestinal symptoms leading to weight loss or weight gain. 

And how about our brains? If, in the midst of grief, you have felt like your memory is fading or you are unable to focus or concentrate—you’re not alone. I can’t even tell you the myriad of people I see in my private practice that tell me they think there may be something wrong with their brain. You may feel like
your mind is foggy, garbled, or confused. You may experience forgetfulness, poor focus, and attention, or have trouble planning or organizing things as you once did. And this can lead you to question yourself and your ability to make decisions.

Our bodies are incredibly intuitive. They will create all sorts of physical stimuli to force us to address a psychological problem. It is our bodies’ way of telling us to start paying attention. So it is crucial we try to care for our bodies during this time, in whatever ways we feel capable of doing so. The basic elements of care become even more important, such as getting your body moving. Even just 10 minutes a day can get your blood flowing and make you feel better physically and emotionally. Drink sufficient water and try to fuel your body a few times a day with healthy foods. In addition to these elements of physical care, sharing your grief and what you are experiencing with close friends and family who can offer you support, love, and nurturing can also ease the intensity of your pain. Of course, none of these actions cure these symptoms or your grief, but they do put you on a path to healing. Healing comes in small doses, but it starts here.