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.