October 12, 2011 // Uncategorized

It’s not just all in your head

By Kay Cozad

A young widow and I were discussing the trials of grief the other day and settled on the topic of health. She herself had been experiencing frequent headaches and persistent low-grade fatigue since the death of her husband several months ago, both foreign and disconcerting to this once-energetic wife and mother of three.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Do you think it’s just all in my head?” she asked sheepishly.

Of course, I believe that each path of grief is as unique as the person who navigates it. But, I told her, I suspected these ailments were not just in her head, but real symptoms of her loss — physical manifestations of the internal thoughts and feelings she had about her husband’s death. These maladies were her body’s way of protesting the idea that she would have to make a life without her spouse in it.

And she is not alone. Maintaining physical health during the grief process is not only a common topic in grief literature and among individuals who have experienced loss, but I have personal memories of unfamiliar aches and pains that I hoped were not just in my head.

Within two weeks of Trent’s funeral my two young daughters and I came down with colds and shortly after we survived that respiratory madness, I suffered a flu that I had never before experienced in such severity. It turns out immune suppression is common among those who grieve.

Fatigue was an everyday occurrence for me in those early years of raising children, but the ebb of energy my body endured after Trent’s death was peculiar. No amount of rest seemed to renew me.

Unfortunately, as naive as I was about grief, I was convinced that it was all in my head.

But I as I began to investigate grief, by shared experience and reading grief literature, I became aware that we each feel grief in every part of us — body, mind, heart and spirit, with each manifesting its own distinct symptoms.

The physical expression of grief can come in many ways and it’s important that we educate ourselves on the possible health issues so we are not taken by surprise. Our bodies have been as traumatized as our hearts by the loss and we must listen to them during this trying time. Taking gentle care of our very real physical symptoms honors our bodies and helps us heal.

Many bereaved find they experience appetite changes. Some lose interest in foods and eat less, while others eat more. It’s important to eat small portions of nutritious foods throughout the day to maintain energy levels. Fluid intake is critical during the early months of the grief process. Dehydration can cause a series of distressing ailments including mental confusion, so we must drink generous amounts of healthy beverages and water.

Sleep disturbances and depravation make for long and tiring days. If you have trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep after waking in the night try changing your bed time routine or changing the side of the bed you sleep on.

Lethargy is a another common physical manifestation of grief and poses a real issue in the process of healing. This physical feeling of just not caring about what used to bring you joy can only be faced over time and in one’s own unique way. Investigating new interests sometimes assists in joining life’s flow again. But there is no time frame for regaining that joy.

There are heart palpitations, shortness of breath, aches and pains to contend with. These are all natural responses to losing a loved one and I assure you, not just all in your head.

If we focus on doing the hard work of grief, these symptoms will abate over time. Be patient and give yourself permission to take gentle care of yourself as you grieve. If you are uncomfortable with an ailment or it persists over time, consult a doctor.

As we discussed the physical aspects of grief my young friend and I agreed that it takes an immense amount of energy to mourn the loss of someone you love. And that is energy that must sometimes be drawn from other areas of our lives. It’s important to understand that these physical ailments have a natural place on our journey of grief and that we must attend to them. My friend spoke of her understanding of her physical grief so beautifully when she said, “It’s when your body finally catches up with your mind.”

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