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Recognizing Physical Aspects of Grief

Posted by: Corry Roach on 7/31/2010

I am reminded of the award winning television program Intervention, which shows us without fail how the unfinished business of grief is distorted into substance abuse and addictions. These, nor any distortions of grief, are to be trifled with, in terms of their impact on our physical health, if our grief issues are not acknowledged. I happen to believe that people can die of a broken heart.

 

  Common physical symptoms when we are in acute grief include chest pain, difficulty or painful swallowing, sleeplessness, which can be about hiding from the world and the pain we feel when we are awake, to insomnia when we can’t seem to slow our mind down. Loss of appetite is common, or the opposite, which is often an attempt to fill the empty, gaping emotional hole we carry inside us with physical food. Yawning is also a common behaviour, often because our breathing becomes rather shallow, so the body compensates in its need for more oxygen in this manner. Others may include hypertension, headaches, painful jaws from clenching our teeth, and even TMJ dysfunction.

 

 I recall being unable to sleep, and eventually developing a tremor in my hands and a stutter in my speech. Memory is also commonly affected, all not that unusual if we understand how stressful grief is, especially if we keep a lid on our feelings and emotions! Burnout is, in my thought, a clear example of a need to work through unfinished business that has piled up, whether it is a death related grief or a need to express frustrations at the goings on at the office. The stress of losing a job is a grief issue and needs resolution just like a death…

 

Children need to be encouraged to express their emotions too, and they need guidance in having this modeled for them. They need to learn what behaviours are acceptable and which are not, and every family and culture is unique. However, when children are uncertain, they repress their feelings of grief, often becoming fearful until adults indicate by their behaviour what is acceptable. Children will often hold back with their expression of sadness until the adults around them are stronger, and then they give themselves permission to fall apart. In the case of a sibling’s death, this is especially so.

 

 Remember that, although their conscious understanding of the loss experience is of course different than that of an adult, even young children grieve. Often babies are irritable, with disruptions in sleep or feeding. Although this is usually in response to the parent’s disrupted emotional state, there is no doubt that babies feel the parents’ unrest, tension or depression. They are comforted when we include them in our expression of tears. It is unhelpful when we try to protect or shield our children from our emotional pain.Separating the child from us during this time may create feelings of abandonment. Embracing the child or cuddling the toddler in a tender embrace is often a source of comfort for both adult and child when tears are being shed. This way, the child learns how to emote without inhibition, and there is no underlying message of fear.

 

When we don’t learn to grieve as children, it is not uncommon to grow up with physical health issues that include respiratory infections or conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. Gastro intestinal difficulties such as hyperacidity or acid reflux are not uncommon either, and may lead to ulcers in adults. I suppose one could equate this with the inner questions of “How do I digest this painful happening in my life?” What becomes clear is that if we don’t emote, those issues will be expressed in other ways, and these are usually taken on by the physical body.

 

 Over the last years, studies and research has been done on the emotions of newborns in response to their birth experiences, whether a vaginal birth or by Cesarean section. It was concluded that much could be done to facilitate bonding and the nurturing experience of the neonate through skin to skin contact, by encouraging the parents to carry the infant as many cultures still do,  eye and body contact as much as possible until the nursing bond was assured and established. It must be understood that, even though having a new baby sets our household on its ear, it is an equally trying time for Baby as it learns how to live in the world. Breathing, different cries to express hunger, pain, frustration, or just a need to cuddle are learned. Not to mention learning how to make the whole digestive tract work smoothly from sucking to burping to pooping, these babies need to learn how to communicate much of that with their new moms and dads! Add sleep deprivation to the mix, and we understand with greater respect, the stress and celebration of a new baby in the home.

 

 It was discovered that bundling newborns, along with interactive communication such as touching of their skin (including massage), eye contact and talking or singing to the baby made a world of difference in how well these babies thrived in weight gain and balancing feeding and sleep patterns.

 

Elisabeth Kubler Ross used to say that a child who was not allowed to express or shed their tears would invariably grow up to be a fearful adult marinated in self pity. Without doubt, there is a price to be paid for withholding emotions and feelings, and many of them are well disguised as we develop coping strategies into adulthood. Unfortunately, we create emotional masks that belie the pain inside, to convince others as well as ourselves that we are fine. Sadly, we hide the inner beauty and remarkable character of personality of who we really are when we do this, and often do this so well that we don’t recognize coping strategies when they occur.

 

Grief is a blessing, a gift that allows us to move through the mourning process and come to greater peace and understanding of the world and our place in it. I encourage everyone to celebrate this healing work, rather than live in fear and repression and limitation of what you may think is possible in your life.

 

Although I appreciate that, as my friend said, we feel we don’t have time for this, I encourage you to take time to grieve. Do it well and often, and your emotional, spiritual and physical body will thank you for it! I can also attest that the bleak, sad, crazy, out of control world of grief is meant to be transformed into a celebration of life and meaning while we are living, often as a legacy to those we loved and lost.  

 

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3 Comments

    • Aug 05 2010, 5:41 PMMary Jane Hurley Brant
    • Good Morning Corry,

      Yes, the body absorbs grief and so deeply. I think it goes into our bones as a woman.

      I have a dear friend whose marriage of 39 years has just ended. She and her husband shared the loss of a child together just three years ago so her poor body has already suffered terribly never mind her heart which is broken.

      Do you think men handle loss in their body differently than women, Corry? I would be interested in your thoughts because of your excellent medical background.

      Kind regards,
      MJ

    • Aug 10 2010, 8:34 AM corry
    • Thanks for your thoughts, MJ. I do believe that women feel their grief much more in their bodies. If we realize that we give birth to our children, and carry them for nine months, and breast feed them, and nurture, hold and hug and kiss them, it is not a far stretch to acknowledge that our warm bodies miss that maternal contact, literally on a cellular level. My nerves used to hurt in my hands, I wanted to hold my babe so desperately. Women are also internally motivated by what they feel, and most men are externally motivated by what they know. That gives another clue as the the differences in grief between men and women. Men will try to understand cerebrally how they can make sense of this heart issue, and of course herein lies the dilemma. The longest trip we all take is from our head to our hearts, and we all know that grief doesn't have to make sense in order for it to begin its healing journey. Men are also motivated by guardianship of the family, whereas women are motivated by nurturance of the family. Again, another clue as to how they will grieve and resolve their loss...In our culture, men are more discriminated against, as crying is perceived as weak when it is actually a strength. Women often cry when they are angry, as anger is not usually an accepted emotion for a lady. So we have men who are grieving who show anger, and women who are angry who show grief...no wonder we get this emotional stuff all mixed up sometimes!I have a chapter from my book, called 'The Wounded Healer' on my website that is a free read, addressing men and grief. Check it out and share with a friend... I'd love to hear your take on it. I wrote it to a dear old friend after his daughter was killed a few years ago. Men or women, makes no difference in the end. We all hurt, and we all need to love one another as we try to find meaning in the grief throughout our life, that remains without our child. That's the final analysis, I think. And then, it's only my feeling, being a woman after all...Blessings,Corry

    • Aug 16 2010, 9:50 PMMary Jane Hurley Brant
    • Corry,

      I look forward to reading your thoughts on men and grief and will share how it strikes me.

      We are connected now, Nurse Corry, by a mother's heart and websites, too. See your worthy site linked on my home page.

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 Recent Comments

"Corry,

I look forward to reading your thoughts on men and grief and will share how it strikes me.

We are connected now, Nurse Corry, by a mother's heart and...
"
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by Mary Jane Hurley Brant on Recognizing Physical Aspects of Grief

"Thanks for your thoughts, MJ. I do believe that women feel their grief much more in their bodies. If we realize that we give birth to our children, and carry them for nine months,..." Read more
by corry on Recognizing Physical Aspects of Grief

"Good Morning Corry,

Yes, the body absorbs grief and so deeply. I think it goes into our bones as a woman.

I have a dear friend whose marriage of 39 years has just...
"
Read more
by Mary Jane Hurley Brant on Recognizing Physical Aspects of Grief


  
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