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Wordless Grief — The Body Remembers

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By Martha Carr, Psy.D., LMFT

It’s 11:38 pm and I am jolted awake by an earthquake. It’s so rough it feels like I am thrown straight up in the air, taking me out of slumber instantly. My brain scrambles to figure out what is happening and, while I am still moving, my right arm instinctively and spontaneously reaches out, grabbing for Richard. For 42 years he slept to the right of me. The bed is empty of course. It’s been empty for four years. It takes me a few seconds to reconcile the two realities – the one in which he is still there and the one in which he is gone. My heart breaks a little again as consciousness brings me into the actuality of my life.

The body remembers

Although my heart is racing from the violent intrusion of the earthquake, and I am bracing for any continued shaking, I am more struck by the meaning of that gesture. How can he be dead and alive at the same time? Despite all the grief work I have done in order to come to terms with my loss and despite the reasonable adjustment to my life alone, and despite knowing full well Richard is not coming back, there he was, asleep next to me, as real in that moment as any other time during our marriage. It was a stunning dichotomy.

This experience brought me face to face with the complexity of grief and helped me understand more about why it is such a painful and lengthy process. The sudden transition from the unconscious state of slumber into consciousness allowed me a momentary peek into an internal reality not usually visited. Like waking while dreaming at the same time. Here was evidence that my deep connection to Richard was still living inside of me — created by the repeated and continuous experience of 42 years together. In the same way we never forget how to ride a bike, swim or tie our shoes, our long-term important attachment relationships are embedded deeply in our mind/body connection. Neuroscientists call that procedural memory or muscle memory. Our bodies never forget. That is why early infant attachment experiences are so pivotal in personality development and why overwhelming trauma can be so challenging to overcome.

Usually the somatic world operates in the background of our awareness. Emotions and feelings are the expression of the dialogue between the mind and body. We can develop more awareness of that conversation, explore our thoughts and feelings and notice our body states, but there is also always a part that is non-conscious. That means it operates outside of awareness. Our brains are designed that way in order to maximize efficiency. It would be very cumbersome if we had to think about how to walk, for example, or how to pick up a pencil each time we needed to. Once learned, our brains don’t have to expend energy figuring it out repeatedly – it knows the procedure because it’s done it so many times. The fact that our significant and long-term relationships embed into body memory is testament to the power of the love bond.

That is why caring for the body after such a profound loss is as important as taking care of one’s mental state. They are interrelated. There is often shock and exhaustion, disorientation, fogginess, deep sadness or numbness. The ability to sleep, to eat, is often disrupted and there is a loss of sense of purpose or meaning in life. Our physical bodies are going through as big a transition as our psyche. “Research to date shows, like many other stressors, grief often leads to changes in our endocrine, immune, autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular systems.” For example, sometimes our hearts change shape as a result of a profound loss. Cardiologists call this Broken Heart Syndrome (also called stressed induced cardiomyopathy) or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The stricken heart changes shape to resemble a pot. Luckily for most, it returns to normal over time.

Listen to what you want and need, sleep when needed, nourish your body with healthy food, get some fresh air and sunshine. Just sit and breathe, let others take care of you. Go for a walk, swim, take a gentle yoga or stretch class to keep you connected to your breath, your energy. These kinds of things not only help you pay attention to your body but also allow you to tap into its strength. Listen to music, paint or journal, get plenty of hugs (something hard to do during Covid-19 restrictions). Cuddling with your pet releases the feel-good hormone Oxytocin too. Stay connected to loved ones as much as possible. Maintaining spiritual or faith-based rituals and practicing self-compassion can help the body relax. Have your annual physical with your doctor after a while to make sure your body is recovering. Love your body — it needs attending to as much as your social/emotional state.

Grief is hard to express in words, especially at first, because it is embodied in feelings and emotions. That is why when someone asks early on, “How are you?” it feels like an impossible question to answer — because it is. It’s too big, too encompassing. But we can heal by talking about it over time. Speaking with others who are also grieving, or who understand the grief process, can help deliver the grief from unbearable, unspeakable, wordlessness into the world of words and psychic representation where we can digest it — slowly, little by little. Healing is a process. Doing it with others helps us feel less alone in the journey, a significant part of restoring our inner vitality. To know the body holds that precious relationship can be comforting, especially when, years later, the loss may be less consuming. Fear not forgetting your loved one, your body will always remember.

By Martha Carr, Psy.D., LMFT