How To Deal With the Physical Symptoms of Grief

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Creaky hips were my first sign that something different was going on. It was the fall of 2017, and my hips groaned and crackled whenever I moved from the spot where I spent hours staring blankly at a TV. My hips ached as I slept and as I sat. Nothing could soothe them, not even painkillers or a few extra stretches per day.

This was a pain I’d never experienced, but it mirrored the emotional anguish I was enduring. My best friend had just died, and my body held massive stress. It was as if my hips were bracing for impact from the next inevitable devastation. The seasons were changing, and all I could think about was how much my life had suddenly shifted. The persistent pain was yet another transition through which I was struggling.

It turns out that creaks, aches, and phantom pains are pretty normal for people dealing with grief and bereavement. I didn’t know about the physical symptoms of grief at the time–I thought my decreased activity and shock were likely culprits. While my bleary-eyed TV-watching marathons didn’t help, the pain was a symptom of something bigger. Grief had made a home within my body, and I carried it with me as I moved.

Katherine Shear, MD, founder and director of The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University School of Social Work, is a psychiatrist and internist. In her clinical work, she’s seen the physical symptoms of grief firsthand. “A lot of people have pain in their body,” she says. “It can be very intense and can be anywhere. [There’s also] the usual bodily stress responses meaning things like cardiovascular symptoms, gastrointestinal symptoms, and muscle tensions.”

In other words, grief hurts. Acute grief, which The Center for Complicated Grief defines as the early period following a significant loss, is an incredibly distressing time. Even though most of us emphasize the emotional weight, bodies react to the stress and pain as well. Dr. Shear says that altered sleep and weight fluctuations are common, too. Understanding that our bodies react to loss helps correct the misconception that grief is limited to yearning for a loved one or what is gone. Dr. Shear’s work helps us to see grief as an embodied event, and it helps us treat it as such. Our response to loss connects to every single body part. Our bodies roar as we wrap ourselves around a newly-arrived reality.

I recently published Self-Care for Grief, a book I began working on at the beginning of the pandemic, a global event that has left so many of us reeling from all types of loss. I set out to create a grounding resource for anyone processing physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual loss. If physical pain has become a part of your grieving journey, you’ll find a few tips below.

Recognize that your pain is normal

As we mentioned above, physical symptoms, as well as weight fluctuations and sleeping habits, are a natural part of grief–they aren’t a sign that your process is strange or wrong. It’s worth restating that grief can include a wide range of physical symptoms: You may get sick more often, deal with stomach upset, decreased focus, exhaustion, or general aches and pains. All of these fall within the realm of normal grief reactions. While addressing any physical concerns, remind yourself that the pain you’re feeling is a valid part of healing. Just as physical cuts and sores take time to mend, so does the enormous pain of loss.

Approach your physical symptoms of grief with curiosity and self-compassion

I’ve learned throughout my grief journey that you can’t be too kind, too compassionate, or too generous with yourself. Embracing softness and self-compassion was huge for me–especially as a Black Nigerian woman. Even before I lost my best friend, my body felt like a battlefield–a receptacle for pain and roughness. Grieving required me to reside in my softness. Please commit to giving yourself that same grace.

To find your softness, Dr. Sheer references My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. “[Menakem] believes that the most important thing to do is find a way to settle–to start really paying attention to your body,” Dr. Shear says. “You want to focus on your body–where you’re feeling tense and where you’re not feeling good in some way–and try to pay attention to it. Acknowledge it, then try to settle–to release whatever it is that you’re experiencing in your body.”

Embrace gentle movement

When I realized my aching was grief-related, one of the first things I turned to was yoga. Instead of doing intense hip-opening exercises, a friend suggested I try both restorative yoga and yin yoga. Both are slower-paced and involve holding poses for more extended periods. For me, those moments on the mat were life-altering. There, I was in the valleys of my grief, mourning over a dear friend who should still be alive. I had space to feel what was coming up and release it, too.

Within weeks, the aching in my hips dissipated. My grief remained, but over time it felt more manageable. I had given myself the chance to hold my grief without judgment, and it was a step toward what Dr. Shear calls integrated grief–the kind of pain we spend the rest of our lives existing alongside.

Maybe yoga isn’t for you, though. Perhaps you like hiking or leisurely trail walks. Maybe you want to feel the wind against your cheeks. Or maybe weight lifting or burpees fits what you need. In the throes of grief, getting out of bed can be a challenge, so be gentle with yourself and go in the direction of what feels right. You can adjust and experiment with what works.

Consider talking to a healthcare provider about your concerns

If any of the sensations you’re experiencing worry you, it’s okay to discuss your concerns with a healthcare provider. For instance, if you’re dealing with gastrointestinal distress, a doctor can recommend something to soothe nausea, or they can suggest lifestyle changes to lessen cases of upset stomach.

Additionally, you can chat with a mental health professional or grief counselor who might be able to help you work through emotional challenges while you tend to your physical needs. Grief can be harrowing, and it’s perfectly fine to seek multiple methods of support.

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