Are you feeling tired, paralysed, inert, heavy, sick, anxious or achy? Have you got pains in your body, is your digestion upset, are you up during the night? Do you feel your memory has evaporated, your concentration is a thing of the past, are you conscious you are talking too much, or do you feel mute? Are you self-harming, drinking too much, eating too much (or too little), smoking a lot or hitting the bottle? Have you been sick with a cold, cough or flu since the death of your loved one? It’s a tough list, that’s for sure.
You are certainly not alone if you said yes to several of these experiences. All of the above are physical symptoms of grief.
The strange thing is that people don’t talk about them much.
Through 14 years of counselling the bereaved, those who have suffered profound losses and my own experiences of grief, I have come up with a very inexact, totally untested, un-researched theory that grief is about 70% physical and 30% emotional.
That might surprise you because most people believe that grief is expressed totally by an emotional response to the death of a loved one. Everyone experiences physical responses to grief, but often they go overlooked, ignored or unconnected to the bereavement. It often comes as a great surprise that I might ask a lot of questions about someone’s physical wellbeing at the first counselling session.
Take a moment to think back to the first 6 months of your bereavement. Looking at the symptoms, in the first paragraph, on reflection, might you have suffered one or more of the physical symptoms?
Disrupted sleep is a very common one. Mourners often have sleep disturbances, it may be that you fall asleep exhausted, but wake in the night and cannot get back to sleep because your mind is whirring. Some people suffer with early morning waking and they nap in the day, too tired to function, but then cannot get to sleep at night. It can quickly become a vicious circle. Tiredness exacerbates grief because it is so much harder to cope when fatigued.
Emotions sit perilously close to the surface and could break through any moment.
Do you know for example, that it is quite common to develop similar pains to those your partner may have suffered before their death? It is often the physical manifestation of your natural anxiety about getting ill yourself. You may also have very understandable concerns about who will look after you if you get sick (since you did the bulk of caring during your partner or loved one’s illness).
I feel it is very normal and understandable if you turn to excesses when you are grieving.
More alcohol than usual, too many cigarettes, reaching out or longing for sex, eating too much or taking drugs (either over the counter ones or illegal substances) are all ways you may unconsciously or consciously choose to numb your mind and body. Truthfully, I think they work in the short term. The knack is to realise when it is becoming a problem, a habit or you say to yourself, "this just isn’t really me." I reassure clients that they are not the first ones to turn to these things as a way to feel better. Most people will stop as their bereavement progresses and their experiences and feelings start to even out a bit and they develop other ways of coping.
What can help?
Finding support helps. Be brave, ask friends, family and neighbours to help, find some spiritual guidance, read a book which ‘calls to you’, walk in nature, get on the internet and look for a bereavement forum or find a counsellor, grief supporter or bereavement group to attend.
Be mindful of your need to be gentle with yourself, don’t beat yourself up about that bottle of wine, those cigarettes or the chocolate cake but accept that you needed it at the time, “it’s OK.” Try to hold onto hope that things can be different. Your feelings will slowly change, I don’t know how that will turn out but it will not be like it is now. Honestly.
If you think counselling might be something you would like to explore then contact me and we can have a chat.
If you have experienced physical symptoms of grief, do share here to help others.
Do you wear your heart on your sleeve and cry easily and willingly (and maybe for you, embarrassingly), at the smallest of triggers? A sentimental card, a beautiful view, a sad movie, good or bad news alike can set your tears off.
Perhaps you are someone who is not given to tears at all. It takes the most cataclysmic of events to induce your tears, or maybe being completely at the end of your tether or tolerance.
What is difficult to negotiate, is the judgement of each group, from the other side of the fence. The criers may think the dry-eyes ones are ‘hard-hearted’, ‘lack feelings’, ‘don’t care’ or maybe are ‘in denial’. The slow to tears group may judge the criers, ‘overly sensitive’, 'too much to handle’, being 'demonstrative’, or simply ‘ridiculous’, though all these thoughts are not usually voiced out loud!
The period of time when this might get judged the most, is during a bereavement or periods of loss. The cultural expectation is that people cry when someone they love has died, a relationship has finished, a partner has abandoned them or someone got ill. We expect to be met by someone weeping when we visit to give support or condolences. If we aren’t, we might flip the other way and think something akin to, ‘she is so brave’, ‘he is holding up so well’ or ‘oh…he’s OK then’. The assumption being, ‘they don’t need me here or require my help’.
The point is that neither way is right nor wrong.
I think it is a great mistake to assume that people, who don’t cry, don’t feel. They do, very deeply in fact. Tears are only one way in which people might grieve or ‘show’ their sadness. Another way is deep sighing. The act of sighing helps expel deeply held feelings without words. People often don’t know they are doing it as it is a natural response to deep feelings. It really works, try it yourself sometime.
Copious tears are OK too, there should be no shame if you are someone who cries a lot. Hormones levels, stress and tiredness all have their place to play in the speed of the crying response. There is some research which suggests that emotional tears contain stress hormones, which the body is able to physically expel in the tears. You may experience that sense of feeling better after a ‘good cry’. Other research shows that crying triggers the body to release ‘feel-good’ endorphins (similar to when people exercise or laugh). So there is a purpose to tears above and beyond the expression of sadness, grief and loss.
Men are often constrained by cultural messages which get passed down to them through generations such as ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘don’t be such a baby’, ‘man up’, ‘get up and get on, you need to be strong’, and many more. This is a great shame because men need to cry too. As a counsellor, I aim to help men feel comfortable to express their emotions, whether it is through tears and/or words in the counselling room. Sometimes it just is easier to cry away from the home environment.
Whether you are prone to tears or not, one of my favorite quotes written by Washington Irving says;
“There is a sacredness in tears. They’re not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief….and unspeakable love.”
If you want to explore your deeply felt emotions, that are hard to contain or understand, then contact my counselling service. You will be welcomed, tears or no tears.
You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning and just for a second, life seems normal and then you remember he died. It hits you in the stomach like a punch from Mohammed Ali, and that’s just the start of your day.
Later in the morning, you wrestle with the phone company, try to get a delivery slot over the phone from the horrible woman who just won’t listen, worry about your children and how they are coping, lie to your brother that you are 'OK', ‘don’t worry about me’, and then, you realise you forgot the appointment at the Bank to discuss closing your joint account. At that point, you silently say to yourself, ‘I think I am going mad’.
Grief can feel like madness sometimes. It’s all too much, it goes on too long, it catches you out at the wrong times and it destabilises you.
The allure of going back to bed and pulling up the duvet for ever is pretty strong. The urge to lie on the sofa and never get up is increasingly enticing. The tears start falling and you think you will never be able to get yourself off the chair and be normal again and manage anything in a responsible way, or perhaps even find the impetus to do the smallest of jobs that need to be done.
What is certain at this point is that your future looks very uncertain and it’s frightening, depressing and overwhelming. I want you to know that feeling as if you are going mad is a very common experience in grief but I can assure you, you are NOT mad, you are grieving deeply and profoundly, and though it is difficult to tolerate, it is normal and natural to feel this way. You may be thinking nothing can make this any easier, but there is help and support out there for you.
It is very tempting to ‘beat yourself up’ at this point, and say in your head, ‘I shouldn’t be like this; I shouldn’t be lying in bed’.
What would it be like to give in to the urge to be where you are, to leave the crazy world to its own devices and rest physically and emotionally? To allow yourself the time and space to cry, to remember him for as long as you want, to embrace that feeling of madness? Just zoning out, as much as you want, because it is important to have that down time. Imagine you find your best friend in bed feeling really ill, would you force them up, no! I am pretty sure you would encourage them to rest.
What I can tell you is that grief is physically and emotionally exhausting and slowing down, re-couping and regrouping is essential to your ability to face the world again, later on. How does that sound to you?
Here are two things you can do to support yourself: Give yourself a break during the day, just as you would do for that friend I mentioned above, and remind yourself that nothing stays the same for ever. You will feel differently at some point in the future.
Lastly, it can really benefit you to find a friend, who can help you do that. In grief there are often just one or two people (sad but true) who can tolerate your ‘madness’ in grief, (I call them ‘stickers’, those people who stand by your side through your mourning). If there isn’t one, then go and find someone outside of your family or your circle who will listen to you. Counselling is one option where you can arrive in all your ‘madness’ and grief and find understanding, acceptance and solace.
If you would like support in your grief or loss, please see my counselling services. It would be lovely to hear from you.