Before the sudden passing of my father, I always thought of grief as one-dimensional — I imagined it as something that was totally isolated to someone’s emotions. To me, grief sounded like an experience that existed in a vacuum. “If one of my parents passed away, I feel like I would just be too sad to feel or do much of anything else,” I remember telling my boyfriend once years ago. A particularly heart-wrenching news story about a child losing a parent had prompted a discussion between us on loss and how we would handle it. “I think I would just lay in bed all day in the dark, catatonic and depressed,” I sighed.
I didn’t know at the time that just two years into the future, I would be gripping my cell phone, slumped against my apartment’s kitchen wall, trying to get my legs to walk. On a Wednesday night, a week before Christmas 2019, I received a call from the hospital saying that I needed to get there immediately — my dad had unexpectedly passed away at the age of 56. I was shocked, to say the least, as my father and I had just talked about New Year’s Eve plans a day earlier. “I’m so sorry,” the young doctor said to me on the phone, “We tried everything.”
On the way to the hospital, I sat in the car with my boyfriend as he drove, stunned. My stomach churned as we got closer to the hospital’s parking lot, but still no tears. Why aren’t I crying? I remember thinking to myself, half annoyed. When we got to my dad’s hospital room, I remember mentally preparing myself. Okay, this is where I will lose it, this is where I will have an emotional meltdown. But that didn’t happen then either. Instead, I felt an incredible pain in both of my legs as reality started sinking in. It got so bad that I had to kneel down on the hospital floor; sitting on a chair somehow made it worse.
Much to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one in my family who was physically reacting to the shocking news. For days after learning of my father’s death, my youngest sister got nausea so bad it made her sick. My other sister experienced intense chest pains and heart palpitations that she eventually had to go to a doctor to give her peace of mind. Sure, I anticipated crying and screaming (when I got home from the hospital the night of my dad’s death, I did both), but leg pain, vomiting, stomachaches, and chest tightness — this didn’t fit my expectations of grief. The ways mine and my siblings’ grief was manifesting physically was mind-boggling to me. The weirdest part? These symptoms continue to persist two years later. They may be less in frequency and intensity, but they still appear during those tough days.
When Grief Gets Physical
As it turns out, my physical symptoms caused by grief are not unique — they are actually pretty common for those in mourning because of how we are hardwired.
“To begin, our evolutionary history teaches us that togetherness is safety,” explains Dr. Dana Harron, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Director of Monarch Wellness & Psychotherapy, via email. “So, when we lose somebody important, the body sometimes responds as though it were in danger.” Dr. Harron explains that grief activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight system, ” which sends out stress hormones. “These hormones focus the body on doing something, so a grieving person may feel restless,” she adds, “They also often cause insomnia, stomach issues (since digestion slows down), headaches and body aches, and lowered immune response.”
Dr. Harron also shares that another way the body may respond to grief is by activating the “freeze/collapse system”. “In our evolutionary history [this would have been] activated when an attack was unavoidable,” she states, “In this case, the body understands only that something has happened which cannot be helped.” People going through this may feel helpless or stuck, and may experience a variety of symptoms, such as those mentioned above, as well as hypersomnia (sleeping more) and fatigue.
Perhaps most shocking, though, is that grief has the power to cause flare-ups of existing medical conditions. “This might look like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis flare-up, intensified IBS symptoms, or more difficulty controlling diabetes or hypertension,” explains Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, psychologist, certified bereavement facilitator, and author of Moving Through Grief. That intense leg pain I felt? It turns out that the stress of grief triggered my sciatica, something I have lived with since college.
What Can Help
To put it simply, grief is complex, and its connection to our physical, mental, and emotional states runs deep. Thankfully though, by focusing on wellness and by also lowering our stress hormone levels, we may be able to find some respite:
Going Back to Basics
There’s no doubt about it — grief has the ability to cause everyday routines to fall to the wayside. When my father passed away, I remember skipping lunch for weeks after, something unheard of for me because I was so overwhelmed with everything going on. However, Dr. Kubacky shares that it is paramount that we remember to take care of ourselves during these hard times, even in the most fundamental of ways. “The most important thing is to tend to basic maintenance needs — adequate sleep, water, and healthy food choices,” she says. “This will support good health.” Dr. Kubacky also advises limiting drugs and alcohol and cutting down on low-quality foods, as these could all cause adverse effects on our health.
Be Gentle on Yourself
Grief can be overwhelming, but the solutions to help alleviate the pain it causes don’t have to be — you don’t have to make giant life changes to find relief. Dr. Kubacky advises that adding simple new routines into your day, such as journaling, yoga, walking, and meditation, can help. For example, research done by the International Journal of Yoga shows that yoga may help to lower the body’s stress response and can increase serotonin levels. In addition, according to a study done by Rochester State University Medical Center, journaling can help manage anxiety and reduce stress while also acting as a tracker for any negative thoughts or symptoms you may be experiencing. “[These] will all support the integration of the grief experience and reduce stress on the body,” D. Kubacky adds.
Community, and Communication, is Key
Grieving my father’s death is hard, but knowing that I have my siblings to lean on makes it easier. Dr. Harron points out that surrounding yourself with loved ones while you are grieving helps to remind you that you are not alone and that you “exist in a community.” If you cannot physically be near family and friends, she points out that Zoom calls can also help. “Even imagining the people who care about you and vice versa can decrease stress hormones,” she says. “‘Speaking’ with the person you lost or picturing them in your mind’s eye can also have the same effect.”