If you’re one of the unfortunate ones to have lost a loved one, you will know how grief impacts on your emotions. But you may not be so aware of how grief can weaken your body. Unresolved grief can cause chronic issues; it literally ‘gets inside the body’. This, combined with the fact that we live in a society that is still unwilling to talk frankly about bereavement and loss, means that we are often walking on a long and lonely road, with chronic physical symptoms that time does not heal or subdue.
Impact on the Heart
The Old English word for grief, heartsarnes, means soreness of the heart. It is not surprising then that chest symptoms are a recurring theme following bereavement or loss. Many experience heart pain or heart palpitations. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, Broken Heart Syndrome, mimics an actual heart attack. The British Heart Foundation also recognises that grief can weaken the heart muscle and one of the heart's chambers changes its shape. Grief has also been found to increase blood pressure and blood clots.
Impact on the gut
Grief can exacerbate appetite loss—probably because it impacts on the pleasure taken in eating food. Some people are so impacted by grief that they no longer feel hungry. Others comfort eat to fill the gaping void that has opened up in their life. And in addition, regardless of whether you’re eating more or less, the actual process of digestion can be compromised.
Other physical symptoms may include overwhelming tiredness and exhaustion, restlessness, general aches and pains, anxiety attacks, difficulty breathing, insomnia and fears. The loss of someone close can also leave people more vulnerable to infection.
Memories of trauma and loss are stored in the connective tissue of the body, which is why it is not a surprise to craniosacral therapists that grief involves a huge physical effort for people - it is not simply done or felt only in the mind. It has a physical impact. For instance, I will feel grief in a client in one or more of the following ways:
• The sensation of a heavy weight sitting on their whole heart and lung area
• Feeling of trapped energy in the throat (where unshed tears are sitting)
• The respiratory diaphragm will feel dense and ‘stuck’
• The client’s ‘rest and digest’ system can feel non-existent
• The flow of the ‘breath of life’ will be severely compromised
I know for myself, I was shocked at the impact on my body that losing my mum had. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, my heart felt like it had been hit by a truck and my umbilical area felt like it had had something torn from it... It was a huge process of recovery on a physical, emotional and spiritual level.
We need to acknowledge grief more in our society. We need to take it from its taboo status. We need to provide the support on the physical and on the emotional levels to help each other through. We need to raise awareness of the lesser known physical impacts. We need to talk about the body therapies that help the body to release and recover physically. But most importantly, we need to acknowledge the impact of grief – to witness and be with it, not to try and fix it or make it go away. Some losses never go away – but the physical impact of them can be cleared so that we can get on with following the flow of the great river of life to the best of our ability.