Friday, December 12, 2014

The physicality of grief

Dear god am I tired. I thought about writing a whole post about fatigue and that alone made me weary, so I decided to give myself a little more room and write about the physical experience of grief.

Emotions live in the body. We get butterflies in our stomachs, we feel giddy with joy, we burn with anger. For me, grieving is an intensely physical process. I think it is for many of us who grieve deeply, but there is little room in our society for it. You can't really call into work saying, "I'm sorry, I can't come in today, I have a grief headache. Give me 6 months or so and it will go away."

While Kevin was sick my body performed miracles for me. I gave it far too little sleep and exercise, far too much bad food and stillness, yet it kept going. I didn't get sick all winter because I was caring for him. There was no time for me to be sick. He needed me.

Once he died I began to hurt. My whole body ached, real physical pain. Within a week I had a cold and a few weeks later, another. I could barely walk around the block without needing a nap, not that I could sleep when I did go to bed. This was continuous for months. My back and hips hurt. I had headaches. My vision changed and I needed new glasses. I couldn't take deep breaths because my chest hurt - literally my heart has broken. When I woke up I moved like an infirm 90 year old, aching feet, slow, unsteady. Sometimes my skin would hurt. And I couldn't stand up straight, neither when I woke nor after hours of wakefulness. I was folded in on myself, protecting my tenderness.

It is eight months later now. 37 weeks. Longer than seems possible. And I still hurt. It isn't as constant but right now? I am utterly exhausted despite getting some sleep last night (I still wake in the middle of the night looking for him). My knees hurt. I have the edges of a headache. Today I'm not standing as tall as I did a few days ago (Fridays are hard). I feel as though gravity weighs more upon me than others. On the other hand, my eyes aren't swollen shut from crying, my throat isn't too bad, my feet only hurt a little. It comes and goes. It's mild enough that I can smile and nod.

We know people somatize stress. We know stress can have direct and adverse effects on our bodies. We know all of this. So it's no surprise that grief hurts.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this post other than to share the experience. I don't have any great wisdom to share, no pithy comments for my conclusion. I have only the observation that when we feel great emotional pain it may be reflected in our bodies.It won't last forever though it may return. Be kind. Be patient. Maybe take a bath or have a cup of tea or go for a gentle walk. Maybe some gentle exercise or meditation. And don't be afraid to say that you hurt, your experience is real.

(c)2014 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Laura, I think this IS great wisdom to share. Not everyone realizes that grief can involve what you describe so clearly. There is wisdom, too, in offering these possible temporary solutions. You are wonderful.

  2. I know I've read before, I can't remember where, that there is a *VERY* strong neurophysiological (is that a word?) link between emotional and physical pain. The brain, in registering either, makes no measurable distinction between the two. And strange as it sounds, studies suggest that the same painkiller medicines we take for sprains and cramps can also, apparently, actually help to ease the sting of rejection and loss. Weird, huh?

    - Mei-Lin

  3. That was deeply moving. Thank you for sharing this with us!


  4. Dear Laura, your heart is covered in scar tissue that is tight and stiff and painful. Your heart used to be all tender and bendable. It has changed. Yet deep in the core of your heart remains the love and humor and kindness, and an alter made up for Kevin with his photo, juggling balls, and stories. And a candle always burning that says, "I will love you forever." That scar tissue takes much physical therapy of the heart to make it pliable. You have many friends holding your heart in their hands massaging it and loving you. It is not much. It is all I can offer you today.

  5. I feel just like this. Its going to be a year since Chris died. I get some sleep sometimes. I ache all over lost of my days. The anxiety levels are all over the place amd sometimes I have ran out of the subway on my way to work. I cared for Chris also, for two months. Since he was going through pain since before he was bed ridden I had taken upon all of the physical work of the house. His last two month were the most physically demanding as I took care of a the house, him and out pets. I ate junk, i slept 4-5 hours a day, I survived on coffee and Malta (a latin drink by product of making beer, bery good). For some reason my body asked for a lot of sugar. I lost weight I was numb. But when he died it was like a whale fell on me. I was so destroyed that it translated on to me physically. I got sick fast. I was sick for almost 2 months witb colds and flu and pink eye, you name it I had it. I still get sick faster than before. I am aware that depression lowers the inmune system. But it still is annoying...and exhausting. Its like its not enough that the heartbreak is emotional but this pain translates to our bodies. No one believes me when I tell them that this hurts and it hurts like nothing Ihave ever felt in my life.


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