5 Steps For When Grief Gets Physical

Can Grief Make You Sick?

The death or departure of someone we love can be traumatic. Loss hurts, and the resulting grief can be challenging.

When we lose someone, we immediately feel the emotional impact. Shock, sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, and other emotions surface and can hijack us at a moment's notice. The ensuing emotional roller coaster can be unnerving and even frightening.

What often gets overlooked, however, is that grief hits our whole being - not simply our emotions. Our losses also hit us mentally, spiritually, and even physically. Our hearts, souls, and bodies feel the impact. 

 “I have headaches. My back hurts. My stomach bothers me. I have dizzy spells. My body is falling apart,” Shirley shared.

Seemingly out of the blue, Shirley’s daughter Corinne was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. The treatment was severe enough that Corinne opted to go on hospice care. After a few months, Corinne died at home surrounded by her husband, her two daughters, and the rest of her loving family. She was 44.

“After Corinne’s death, I’ve felt terrible. I had tests done. Nothing. Could this be grief?” Shirley asked.


Many people experience new, exacerbated, or strange physical symptoms following the death of a loved one. When grief hits, it smacks our bodies too.

Grief is a form of stress. It taxes our immune system. Our bodies, already under assault by the daily demands of work, the pressure of family responsibilities, and the increasing toxicity of our environment, must work even harder to maintain health. In the short run, we might be able to manage. Over the long haul, however, grief can wear us down.

We can experience headaches, muscle aches, tightness in the chest, and neck pain. Some report chest pain, palpitations, or rapid heartbeat. Others complain of stomach pain, intestinal distress, bowel changes, heartburn, or nausea. Many experience air hunger (the feeling of not being able to get enough air), frequent colds, or persistent respiratory infections. All kinds of health issues can surface.

Our bodies are feeling our distress. We're more vulnerable both emotionally and physically.

Perhaps the most common grief symptom is fatigue. One widow said, "Even chewing is a chore." A bereaved parent commented, "Some days I can barely open my eyes." A grieving daughter shared, "I'm so tired that I can hardly think."

Grief is not an illness like the common cold, where we can expect to recover in a few days. Grief is more like an extended battle or a demanding marathon. We must learn to pace ourselves and appreciate that our entire system is under duress.

Weathering this physically challenging storm can be a difficult adventure. Here are 5 things you can do to help yourself through this time.

5 Important Action Steps

1. Focus on grieving well.

Process the emotions. Get around people who are helpful to you and limit your exposure to those who aren't. Make grieving well a priority. Involve others. Don't try to do this alone.

2. Eat healthy and hydrate well.

Grief affects the appetite. You forget to eat. You don't hydrate as much. You must be intentional about this. You need to take basic nutrition more seriously than ever during times of loss.

3. Get adequate sleep.

You might need more sleep than usual. Grief is demanding. Get the rest you need. You're worth it.

4. Get regular exercise.

Exercise burns off emotion and angst, releases endorphins, and boosts your immune system. Exercise helps energize your depleted system.

5. Get regular check-ups.

Make sure your doctor knows you're grieving. Get your physician in the loop. 

If you get concerned, get checked out. Your peace of mind is crucial in the healing process. Grieving hearts often need reassurance. If you're worried, take action. 

The death of someone you care about affects your whole person. You miss them, and it hurts. Experiencing grief-related physical symptoms is natural and common.

Breathe deeply. Be patient with yourself. Focus on grieving well. Good self-care is one powerful way you can say, "I love you," and honor their memory. Make your grief count by taking good care of you.

To learn more about Gary Roe and his work with grief and healing after loss, visit www.garyroe.com. To receive a free excerpt of his new book, Comfort for Grieving Hearts, Click here.

10/18/2019 7:00:00 AM
Gary Roe
Written by Gary Roe
Award-winning author, speaker, and grief specialist Gary Roe is a compassionate and trusted voice in grief-recovery who has been bringing comfort, hope, encouragement, and healing to hurting, wounded hearts for more than 30 years. Visit his site to receive a free excerpt of his book, Comfort for Grieving Hearts. For more...
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Oh yes, I've felt the loss of my husband, 3 years & 9 months ago, in every part of my body and mind. When I lost my 2nd husband in 2015, it was like a kick in the gut, that I didn't expect. I thought I knew what to expect, but I was totally flummoxed.
The reason I thought I knew what to expect, & that I was totally surprised by my experience with this loss, is that I also lost my first husband, in 2006, after he had gone through 2 brain surgeries for his seizures - the 2nd surgery, instead of helping the seizures, made them worse, and they had to induce coma, which he never came out of. That loss was extremely difficult, but I thought, in 2015, that I knew what I was facing, and what was ahead. I didn't actually think about the two different types of people that each husband was, and that our relationships/interactions, etc. were totally different from one another. In my first marriage, I essentially took care of my husband, and was the sole supporter, because of his illness, but in my 2nd marriage, my husband and I managed everything together, and shared responsibilities..and we talked a LOT, and also laughed a LOT! I had previously dated my 2nd husband, 35 years before we "met again", and we just went our own ways, didn't really "break up" or have a fallout or anything... I think we both just needed to grow (up)...apparently. I had someone tell me that we were essentially soul mates, because of our previous relationship and the way we got along and shared everything with each other, etc... and I'd never thought of it that way. I'm still dealing with the physical aspect of the grief (break-outs on my arms, sporadically.. I'll have it for 3-4 months, then it may go away for 6 months, and before I realize it, I've got another breakout.). There are other issues (many), but I think they're in combination with other health issues I've had throughout my life...I'm currently seeing a doctor about those issues. And one good thing to come of the latest onset of health issues is that I have quit smoking (since March) and intend to stick it out & not go back! Thank you for your time and honest caring!
Posted by Carol Freer
I can attest that grieving (coupled with, in my case, PTSD) is exactly like being struck down by a terrible disease, for which there is no real cure. My doctor found me to be in fine health—but I certainly didn’t feel well. That is slowly improving. Eat well, exercise, find ways to see beauty that’s still there... keep moving. Believe that there is still happiness ahead for you, even if you can’t have your old life and the shape happiness once wore. Be happy for every morning you see, even if you greet it with a flood of tears. Love your life for both of you—yourself and the one who doesn’t get to see the sunrise with you now...
Posted by Athan Chilton

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