By the time an individual reaches high school most people will experience the death of a loved one. The concept of grief is not fully understood until experienced. How one copes with grief varies from person to person, as well as, the nature of the relationship they had with the person who died. While grief is highly individualized, there are a few things that remain consistent, one of them is having a physical reaction to the intensity of emotions experienced.
Everyone feels emotions in their body, even if an awareness of them is not present. Our bodies are constantly communicating to us; it’s whether we are listening and use our insight to make the connections. For example, our bodies tell us when we are hungry and when we need sleep. In much the same way, the heaviness in our chest could be indicative of the upcoming birthday of a loved one who has died. Or the words that need to be spoken are reflected in the tightness in one’s throat. It seems only natural that in grief, with emotions as heightened as they are, that our bodies need some sort of expression.
From a survival standpoint, the importance of body language, or the physical expression of emotions, are key to keeping us safe and maintaining balance in life (Van der Kolk, 2015). Our emotions are directly connected to “fight or flight,” and “rest and digest.” These two systems create a balance. An example of this can be seen in as simple an act as breathing: inhaling increases the heart rate and exhaling slows the heart rate down (Van der Kolk, 2015).
While the knowledge of how our emotions and how grief specifically impacts our body is helpful, let’s discuss ways to apply this knowledge in a practical way. If you are experiencing distressing physical symptoms, get an evaluation from a doctor to rule out a biological problem causing them. Once cleared medically, increase your awareness of your physical sensations by checking in with your body at regular intervals throughout the day. Ask yourself what am I feeling physically and emotionally? It is helpful to use mindfulness to ground yourself in the present moment when experiencing intense emotions or physical sensations. We want to create an open dialogue between our bodies and our minds. Notice all the ways you interact with your body: physical sensations, emotions, food, sleep, exercise, etc.
Perhaps, the most important piece to the grief puzzle is self-compassion coupled with self-awareness. Acknowledge the difficulty of bearing your grief burden and give yourself the same compassion you would give to someone else carrying the same burden. Take the nap. Call a friend. Find time to connect with others who provide support.
Brandi Garcia, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, MA, BSN, serves as an intern in Grief Services at The Elizabeth Hospice. Brandi is passionate about bringing health and wholeness to the mind, body and spirit of those struggling with mental, physical or existential distress.
The Elizabeth Hospice supports people of all ages through serious illness and grief, helping them find and regain hope. With a variety of counseling and support group options as well as multiple locations across San Diego County and Southwest Riverside County, we make it easy for people to find the resources they need. For more information, call 760.737.2054.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.