The mind and body are intricately connected, which results in a physical response to our emotions, thoughts, and actions. Poor emotional health weakens the body’s immune system, making us more susceptible to minor illnesses, infections, such as colds and flu, and long-term illnesses. Consequently, the manner in which we take care of our health while grieving not only helps relieve some of the common side effects of grief, but also helps lessen complications of existing diseases and developing future health problems.
How Grief Induces the Body’s Stress Response
Grief is not an illness that requires medication, but a normal natural healing response to a loss of any kind. The resulting stress causes the body to display strange and unfamiliar symptoms. All parts of the human body; i.e., the brain and nervous system; the endocrine and immune system; body organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys, and emotional responses like fear, love, anger, and grief, share a common chemical language. When we experience a stressor (grief), the alarm/threat message goes to the brain, which secretes stress hormones (adrenaline) that alert all body organs to secrete more hormones to prepare the person for fight or flight.
Because grief is long term, these chemical reactions continue to occur, resulting in some of the following common signs and symptoms of grief:
Some bereaved parents have been diagnosed with illnesses not previously experienced such as diabetes, hypertension, or cancer. Another bereaved mother thought she was having a heart attack and learned after her third trip to the emergency room that it was a grief response. After an explanation for her symptoms, she was able to calm herself down.
Nutrition and Fluid Intake
Proper nutrition is markedly difficult when you have no appetite for food. Establishing regular meal times is desirable, as well as eating frequent smaller meals. A diet of the superfoods, i.e., leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, berries, beans, fish high in omega 3s, nuts and seeds, whole grain, low-fat milk, and yogurt is most nourishing. Small amounts of comfort foods and one’s favorite dish can encourage eating. Mindful and slow eating aid in digestion and prevent food being caught in the throat. Healthy snacks of nuts, veggies, and fruits should be kept on hand to avoid snacking on sugary and salty snacks. Avoid highly seasoned, high fat, and fried foods. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as donuts and pastries, because they can lead to a drop in blood sugar causing a jittery feeling.
When nutritional intake is compromised during grief, it is useful to add a multivitamin, as well as the anti-stress vitamin-B complex. One should avoid the use of artificial sweeteners, but rather substitute natural sweeteners such as honey or foods that are naturally sweet, such as apples and bananas. Mealtime can be more fun when eating in a different location with a friend.
Water and fluid intake often suffer during grief. It is helpful to drink a cool glass of juice, water or other liquid at least every two hours to avoid dehydration. Caffeinated drinks, like coffee and colas, should be limited or avoided because they may increase jitteriness and sleeplessness.
It may be tempting to numb the pain of grief with food and drink, especially alcohol. This can, in turn, lead to additional problems like dependence and overweight. Numbing the pain also prolongs the grieving process.
Insomnia, the inability to fall asleep and/or to stay asleep, is a distressing grief manifestation that can be difficult to overcome. The natural tendency to seek sleep medications is not always effective and may have negative side effects, including habit formation. Behavioral adaptations that can help resolve sleep problems should be considered.
Environmental preparation of the sleep area includes removing the TV, laptop, smartphone, and other work-related items. The temperature of the room should be comfortably cool for sleeping. Some grieving individuals feel chilly, so socks will help warm the feet and add a warm cup of herbal tea or a warm bath for additional comfort. The addition of soft lighting and an essential oil, such as lavender, will help induce relaxation.
A sleep routine should consistently include a get-up time, a standard bedtime no later than 10 pm, and a wind-down (chill-out) period. Winding down includes physical and mental winding down. The first part of winding down is to separate your busy day from bedtime. Clear your mind of thoughts, worries, pent-up feelings, and the proverbial “To-Do List” by writing them in a log/journal. Don your favorite sleepwear, play relaxing music or light a candle for added ambiance. The second part of winding down is to physically relax the muscles by alternating between tensing and relaxing each part of the body from head to toe. Slow deep breathing calms the heart and further enhances relaxation for sleep.
Some of us get to sleep, but find it impossible to stay asleep. The addition of white noise (sounds introduced via a recording or other instrument specifically to keep silence or other environmental noises from becoming disruptive) may be especially helpful. If you awaken and do not get back to sleep in 10-15 minutes, don’t try to force it. Just rest in bed and enjoy the feel of your soft pillow and bed covers around you. Give yourself the gift of time-out, awake or asleep. Some of the tried and true anecdotes for insomnia include warm milk, herbal teas, and counting sheep from 100 backwards. Another technique is the use of specialized sleep DVDs, which use headphones to enhance the sound.
A word of caution: avoid alcohol and caffeine, especially after about 5 p.m. The stimulation can interfere with sleep. Finally, avoid strenuous exercise too close to bedtime, as this also interferes with sleep. When all else fails and sleep does not come, consider seeking medical advice for sleep aids for short-term use only.
Some of you may have the opposite problem—you find it nearly impossible to get out of bed. You do not have any energy and you feel there is no reason to get up. Nothing seems to matter anymore. This is also a normal grief reaction. Give yourself permission to do nothing, at least for the first few days. Then plan for a favorite activity, such as a movie, shopping, a massage, or visiting with a good friend. In the early months and years, it can be difficult to find anything of interest.
Rest and Relaxation
Rest is extremely important because grief is hard work and the body needs rest to repair itself. In the days and weeks following the loss of a loved one, there is often a flurry of activity. There is also a desire to move faster than the brain and body are able to. Later on, there is the desire to keep busy so as not to think of your child. These factors contribute to fatigue, which is so common in early grief. One way to get some rest and relaxation is to schedule a specific relaxation time in your day. Be sure to include time alone. Plan an enjoyable activity exclusively for pleasure and relaxing such as listening to happy music, reading or writing poetry, dancing, yoga, or any of your favorites. Time spent observing birds, trees, flowers, and nature in general, is relaxing, as is gentle exercise.
Getting physical, along with keeping the heart healthy, helps strengthen muscles and bones, reduces stress, and lowers overall health risks. It also helps to expend some of the angry feelings and pent-up emotions. It is especially helpful during acute grief because it increases energy and helps the body produce endorphins that elevate the mood. Additionally, exercise helps facilitate rest and sleep which can be elusive in early grief. If you have a fitness program in place, you are already familiar with its benefits. If not, do yourself a favor; find a physical activity of interest, and begin today. Exercise a minimum of 30 minutes five days a week. Keep in mind that some exercise is better than no exercise. A simple brisk walk is an exercise that requires no equipment, is cost effective and easy to achieve. Other exercises may include any of your favorites, such as bicycling, jogging, dancing, aerobics, swimming, and weight training. Be sure to get a physical exam before embarking on a new exercise program.
In summary, this long difficult journey called grief is manifested in symptoms that result from the connection between the mind and body. Careful attention to health issues during bereavement can help relieve some of the normal grief manifestations and, more importantly, prevent a worsening of existing disease conditions and prevent future health problems.
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