The loss of a loved one can be an extremely troubling, and confusing time, full of overwhelming emotions—despair, anger, fear, loneliness, even relief and guilt. This mental distress is well documented, but the process of mourning can take a toll on your physical health, as well.
Grief and Your Body
You are likely familiar with some common terms used to describe grief: feeling heartsick or heartbroken, sick with grief, etc. In fact, the word ‘grief’ comes from an Old English term meaning, literally, a soreness of the heart. Our physical bodies have long known that the pain that comes from a loved one’s death is real.
Grief has been known to cause significant loss of appetite, insomnia, tightness in your chest or heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, pain, stress, dramatic weight gain or loss, stomach trouble, weakness and fatigue. The mental toll of grief can exacerbate existing physical conditions and may even lead to increased instances of self-medicating. Grieving can also weaken the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to colds or other contagious illnesses.
While most of the physical symptoms of grief are relatively minor and generally ease over time, there is an increased risk of more serious complications for some people.
Exploring the Link Between Mental and Physical Pain
Research has found that people suffering from intense grief may be more likely to experience premature death themselves. Some studies have shown a significant increase in violent and accidental deaths following a loss, and individuals are also more likely to attempt suicide or succeed at taking their own life while in mourning.
One study reported that at-risk individuals were about 20% more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack after the death of a spouse, and the chance of a bereaved individual having a heart attack is heightened during the 24-hours following the death of their husband or wife. The risk gradually decreases with time; however, the danger may persist for more than a month.
Easing the Symptoms of Grief
In times of grief, self-care can be difficult. Often, the intense emotional impact of losing a loved one makes it hard to think of everyday things like buying groceries or spending time with friends. Yet taking care of yourself is an important part of the grieving process and may actually help alleviate some of the physical symptoms brought on by the loss.
For some, the process of self-care begins with finding a caring, knowledgeable funeral establishment that can arrange the task of burial or cremation. Later, regular exercise, dietary changes, getting plenty of rest, returning to favorite hobbies or exploring new ones, and surrounding yourself with support are also important. Some people find it helpful to join a grief support group or may simply choose to share memories of their loved one with family and close friends.
While no one approach is right for everyone, and the timeline for returning to normal activities will be different for each person, there are plenty of ways to help begin the process of healing both the mental and the physical body.