When facing a major loss of any kind, it’s important to remember that grief has physical as well as emotional and spiritual effects.
All the usual symptoms of high stress can be expected, ranging from a dry mouth to tingling feelings or butterflies; shakiness, increased allergy symptoms and unexplained pain.
It’s no surprise that our hearts suffer especially at times of grief, with an increased risk of heart attack, as well as blood pressure issues, complications caused by irregular heartbeat and chest pains.
People who are already at heightened cardiovascular risk have to be particularly careful when grief hits.
Takotsubo Syndrome (otherwise known as broken heart syndrome) is a real condition, in which blood is not evenly pumped through the heart. It can feel exactly like a heart attack, but is usually temporary.
Aches and pains
Grief commonly brings on genuine feelings of pain or discomfort, such as headaches or migraines, heart pain, limb heaviness, vague aches, or muscular pain. Stress hormones in the body tend to go out of balance and then damage the organs and muscles they contact.
Feelings of being too hot or cold may be unrelated to what’s happening with the external environment.
The digestive tract is especially sensitive to high stress brought on by grief. Feelings of having ‘a hole inside’ are commonly accompanied by digestion issues; nausea, queasiness, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, heartburn, and acid reflux.
Grief-related stress can produce irritable bowel syndrome and changes in appetite, with people commonly eating too much or not enough. Both are harmful. Having another person to assist by preparing healthy food at regular times can be a great help.
Leaning on alcohol and other drugs may numb the pain, but won’t deal with the underlying issue, and increase the strain on your body, particularly the liver and lungs.
In some cases, prolonged grief can itself be an addiction of sorts, taking people in circles.
Within the body, the heavy secretion of hormones associated with grief can reduce white blood cell numbers. This weakens the immune system and makes grieving people more vulnerable to illness, increasing susceptibility to flu, colds and infections.
It’s important to be extra careful at these times.
Concentration, memory and attention issues
Driving is a particular risk for the grieving, with people not always aware they are being unsafe on the road.
In the modern world, those who have just lost loved ones often face a barrage of complex, expensive decisions at the worst time. Where possible, those around them need to shield the bereaved from this sort of thing.
Grieving is a process, which takes time, and there’s no way around that fact. It’s different for everyone, but the risks associated with grief are universal.
To aid recovery, try to get adequate rest, with some kind of regular pattern if possible, and not too many technological distractions.
When to get help
Over time, if grieving feelings are getting in the way of everyday life, there may come a time to seek help. Things to watch out for include major and prolonged appetite changes, difficulty sleeping (or waking), excessive self-medication, feelings of overwhelming sadness, and thoughts of self-harm.
In some cases grief can bring on latent mental health issues.
If any of these things surface, a GP can be a great person to talk to, along with friends and family. You can then be referred to therapists and counsellors with particular grief expertise.
Food, sleep and exercise!
Yoga, music and various forms of physical exercise help many grieving people re-balance their bodies after a major loss. Regular food and sleep should never be underestimated. In cases where grief is particularly intense and all these things have gone completely out the window, small steps in the right direction will add up over time.
If nothing else, remember to stay hydrated.
Grieving is part of bring human, and is unavoidable, but love and compassion will carry most of us through the big losses of life, along with plenty of care and common sense.
photos and story David Lowe