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  • janetgoncalves

Grief lives in the body

On Netflix’s The Crown, Episode 2, Season 5, “The System”, there is a scene that caught my eye as a death doula. The actor portraying Prince Philip is speaking to the actress playing Penny Romsey, his godson’s wife, who recently lost her daughter to cancer. Prince Philip consoles her by commiserating about losing his own sister Cecile. He gives some advice about grieving by saying, “I learned then what grief was. True grief. How it moves through the body. How it inhabits it. How it becomes part of your skin. Your cells. And it makes a home there. A permanent home. But you learn to live with it. And you will be happy again. Though never in the same way as before, but…. But that’s the point. To keep finding…. New ways.” Truer words were never spoken by an actor around grief and how it lives in the body.

Grief is described by Webster’s dictionary as “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death”. As its definition implies, grief is a strong and overwhelming emotion. People often find themselves numb and mentally removed from their daily life, unable to carry on with regular duties while saddened with their loss.

Grief really does inhabit the body. MRI studies show that the grieving brain has a pattern unlike any other emotions. Most of the time an emotion lights up parts of the brain. Grief is distributed everywhere- into areas associated with memory, metabolism, visual imagery and more.

Grief can make you sick. Numbness is the most common sensation immediately after a death. Tears of grief are structured differently than tears of laughter. They are a different shape. People with an existing chronic health condition (such as heart failure or diabetes) might experience a worsening of their symptoms due to the body's flood of stress hormones.

The author Megan Devine, in her book It’s ok that you’re not ok, on pages 117-118, summarizes the concept with “…grief is a full-body, full-mind experience…. Studies in neurobiology show that losing someone close to us changes our biochemistry: there are actual physical reasons for your insomnia, your exhaustion, and your racing heart. Respiration, heart rate and nervous system responses are all partially regulated by close contact with familiar people and animals, these brain functions are all deeply affected when you’ve lost someone close. …Grief affects digestion, appetite, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, muscle fatigue and sleep- basically everything. If it’s in the body, grief affects it.”

Children may display their physical symptoms of grief a little differently than adults, but even though they have difficulty locating or describing what they’re feeling, it also often includes headaches, stomachaches, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, and nightmares.

Although it's a huge generalization, most studies find that the most intense physical symptoms of grief occur in the first few days and weeks after a loss. Of course, it may last longer, but the symptoms tend to improve with time and many people tend to start feeling better within six to eight weeks. Studies also show most grief symptoms largely resolve within one to two years—not that the grief is "over," but rather that the physical impact is.

In conclusion, grief is complex. The effect of stress on the physical body is well documented. It makes sense that your physical body rebels as it can only hold so much. Of course, speak to your doctor, as just because all these physical conditions are common with grief, it doesn’t mean they necessarily are.

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