This article focuses on the physical aspects of grief and compassion. It follows Part One published in April 2017, which emphasized the emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of grief and compassion.
When someone is in mourning their heart feels “torn apart” and they may feel overwhelmed, their body goes into shock, and they may feel out of control. This is a natural phenomenon. It is also typical that during the first year of grief and commonly a second they may feel lost and the strong, capable and efficient person that they used to feel is gone. They have not gone anywhere. The definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.” They are grieving and their body is suffering and the first step of grieving is to mourn their loved one. The journey of grief is like the butterfly going through its metamorphosis. The grieving person goes through metamorphosis and emerges transformed. The transformation consists of moving through the grief and accepting the loss. It is not about getting over it. It’s about coming to terms or making peace with their life despite the permanent void left by their loved one. It is the compassionate actions that are taken that create the transformation. As we take the physical action steps, our feelings (which is our heart) and thinking (which is our head) both begin to change. The person will not be the same as before. They will emerge into a redefined, awakened self.
In the first article, I discussed that the most important tool you need for your new journey is compassion for yourself. What is compassion for you? Compassion is having an awareness of your needs and trying to fulfill the ones you can and being willing to ask others for help. Compassion also means to be gentle, kind, patient, understanding, and unconditionally accepting of you. Awareness of you is important, but self-condemnation, self-judgment, and self- criticism are destructive. Listen to how you speak to yourself because right now it is critical to have a caring and loving companion which is yourself. The same kind of love and tenderness that you would give a young child or your pet is the type of loving talks and behaviors you want to give to yourself.
Another important tool for this journey is listening to your body. Your body is very wise and it has an innate intelligence to heal itself physically and on all levels. When you have a serious injury that needs physical healing, you use the appropriate treatment from a health care professional and your innate intelligence begins the healing process. When you are severely wounded by the death of your loved one, your innate intelligence also begins the healing process. If you listen to your body it is communicating to you the special needs it has. Mindfully give attention to your physical symptoms which will allow you to discover your body’s innate intelligence and allow you to give you what you need. It takes courage to listen but the only way to heal is to listen.
When your loved one dies, the first thing the body does is go into shock. This is the innate intelligence way to protect itself from the avalanche of emotions and the impact of the loss. Just as the body goes into shock after an accident, the body also goes into shock when it has been hit by a severe emotional crisis/trauma. The body goes numb to some extent and it experiences the state of unreality. You may feel like you are in a fog or a haze and everywhere you look appears surreal. This may last days or even weeks. The numbness insulates from the intensity of your feelings and prevents you from experiencing the magnitude of the loss.
Our bodies react to our feelings and it is common for grief to produce physical symptoms. One of the most common physical responses to grief is overwhelming tiredness and exhaustion that makes even routine tasks difficult. You may feel that you have no strength to take care of your basic needs. Even the simple everyday tasks like getting up in the morning and following your normal routine may be effortful. You may even wake up after a full eight hours of sleep and feel drained and tired.
Another very common side effect to grief is trouble sleeping: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early. The body feels devastated and has difficulty relinquishing control and letting go and resting. The body already feels out of control and unconsciously you may not want to lose any more control by sleeping. Sleep problems are very natural reactions to life losses.
Other common symptoms are: an increase or decrease in appetite, nausea, and intestinal disorders like diarrhea. Restlessness, feeling unable to sit still, anxiety attacks, unidentified fear, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, tightness in the throat, and aches and pains (headaches, back aches, neck pain, and rib and chest pain) are all very common. If these symptoms are mild and improve, fine. But chest pain/discomfort and or shortness of breath accompanied by nausea, sweating, a restricting feeling, lightheadedness and dizziness can be signs of a heart attack. Call 911 if these symptoms occur. All of these different reactions are the body’s way of expressing its grief. If any of these physical effects of bereavement don’t gradually improve over time, be compassionate to yourself and seek consultation with a health care provider.
It is also quite typical to have cognitive issues as a result of grief: difficulty thinking clearly, difficulty making decisions and having clear judgments, feeling confused, difficulty concentrating and focusing on a task, failure to process facts and details accurately and having poor memory performance. It is not unusual to forget where you put your car keys or any other belongings, you may find yourself standing in a room and forgetting what you came in to do, or have difficulty retrieving names or words.
If your loved one died because of an illness, it is not uncommon to harbor fears that you might get sick and die too. You might experience symptoms similar to those of your loved one.
What are the physical strategies that you can do to assist you in your grieving? The emotional, psychological and spiritual strategies that were suggested in the March issue and the ones that I will be suggesting now are what will initiate the metamorphosis. When we encounter great suffering it can break our hearts open and serve as a possibility to awakening much like the butterfly uses the pressure of the cocoon to expand, strengthen, and break free into something completely transformed.
- Listen to your body: if you need to cry, then cry. If you need to talk to someone about a reoccurring thought, talk to someone. If you need to sleep, sleep.
- Set aside about 15 minutes each day to be by yourself in a quiet place to give yourself the time to grieve. This is the time to think about your loved one and allow yourself to express and feel whatever you’re experiencing. Give yourself permission to give yourself over to the grief. This helps create a sacred place to be alone with your grief.
- Obtain physical nurturing: get a massage or bodywork, get a manicure and a pedicure, cuddle up with your dog or cat or with a cozy blanket. As you are cuddling, have your favorite beverage or comfort food.
- Plant a tree or a rose bush in the memory of your spouse and nurture it daily by watering it, talking to it, and maybe even playing your spouse’s favorite music. Research shows that talking to plants and playing music makes it grow stronger and faster.
- Attend temple, church, or your place of worship. Gathering with others who worship and share the same rituals and customs may help you connect to your soul.
- Meditate, listen to guided meditations, pray, and read inspirational books. If you can’t read, then listen to the books instead. On YouTube there are many types of meditations: guided, breathing, sleeping, anxiety, clearing negativity etc. You may also search YouTube for your favorite spiritual author — many have their videos of their meditations.
- Spend time in nature.
- Try new things so you can create a hobby: gardening, crocheting, knitting, art, pottery and craft classes, book clubs, sports, hiking, foreign language classes etc. Google List of Hobbies and see what resonates for you.
- Regularly eat balanced meals: be mindful of what you are eating. You need good nutritional foods during this time of grieving besides comfort foods. If you don’t feel like eating, eat small meals throughout the day.
- Sleep 7 to 9 hours per evening. Here are some tips to help you sleep: go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time. This will set your biological clock. Make sure there’s no light in the room. Watch what you eat before bed. Eating spicy foods or a big dinner and eating gassy foods like beans, cauliflower, broccoli, or brussel sprouts can keep you awake at night. You want to eat dinner three to four hours before bedtime. You may want to have a light snack with protein. The protein will keep your blood sugar level even throughout the night. Coffee after 12 noon can keep you awake at night, and limit your alcohol. If indoor or outdoor noise keeps you awake you may want to wear ear plugs. Turn the thermostat down at night to no higher than 75°F because studies show that it’s easier to fall asleep in a cool environment. Try to limit screen time such as TV, cell phones, Facebook etc. two hours before bedtime. The flashing screens, intense colors and brightness all stimulate our brain and make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Taking a warm bath or warm shower can help soothe and relax the body. You can listen to relaxing and meditative music before going to sleep. It is important to limit your fluids before going to bed. Otherwise you’ll be kept up by repeated trips to the bathroom.
- Exercise: walking, yoga, stretching, hiking, going to the gym, dancing or just moving your body to music increases the endorphins and you emotionally and physically feel better.
- Take day trips: going to the forest, beach, or desert. Take a bike ride, hike, drive to a new
- place that you haven’t been before. Breathe the fresh air!
- Join a Meetup group: Google Meetup and find a group of people who have common interests as you, such as books, games, music, pets, hiking, politics, and hobbies.
- Change your routine in some way: we are habitual creatures and we do the same thing over and over again. Change something like having breakfast on your patio or taking a walk in the evening.
- Let others know what you need: I know that it is difficult to reach out during this time but people are not mind readers and they may have difficulty knowing how to reach out to you. Communicate to family and friends how they can support you.
- Keep a journal: keeping a journal will help you process your feelings and help you to get to know how you are feeling. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? Where do I feel this in my body? Allow yourself to experience whatever you’re feeling. Dr. Tara Brach asks herself, “Can I be with this feeling?” Then she will say to her feeling, “You belong. You are a wave in my ocean.” As you give permission that these feelings belong, there’s no resistance and the emotion is integrated. There has been research that shows that the moment you name an emotion, it activates the part of the brain that helps calm down the fight-or-flight system.
- If you need professional help it’s okay to seek it: find a therapist who is trained in bereavement that you trust. It is okay to share the secrets that you are holding onto. You don’t have to suffer alone. You are not crazy! Your body and emotions are experiencing new territory and something foreign.
These suggestions may help you on the journey of transforming grief into a new way of living.