Grief Manifests Itself both Emotionally and Physically

We understand that there is an emotional response when we grieve. What is less expected for those just beginning the process is the physical toll of grieving.

Recently I was catching up with a friend who lost her husband to pancreatic cancer. He had fought a long battle, one they both thought he was winning, until there was a sudden and final clarity that he would not survive much longer.

We all understand, or at least we think we do, what someone goes through when they grieve…the sadness, the anger, the regrets, the loneliness, the difficulty in dealing with the permanence of death.

But my friend discovered that there were genuine physical changes, as well. She had so much to deal with, as her husband had a thriving business, they were very involved in the art community, and they had a growing family of grandchildren. He had handled all of the business, and all of the investments and financial side of their life together. He had left estate plans well in place, but had not written down where everything was, who should run the business, what his passwords were to their accounts, etc.

In dealing with all of this, she was still in deep mourning for the loss of her husband and best friend. She found that she ached all over, had stomach pain, and could not eat. 

On the mental and emotional front, she would cry unexpectedly, and had trouble making decisions. And would get anxiety attacks all of a sudden. This smart woman would find, to her dismay, she could not add up the simplest amounts when she was out to eat, or figure out the tip.

My friend mentioned that her doctor gave her a list after her husband passed away, explaining physical changes she would likely experience. On the website “Hello Grief” they have a list of physical and emotional responses to grief, which would be helpful to anyone going through this.

Another idea for someone going through this, and wondering if they are going crazy, I recommend Joan Didion’s wonderful book about her life in the year following her husband’s sudden death, while at the same time dealing with her daughter’s serious illness: The Year of Magical Thinking. It can be a thoughtful way to let someone know you perhaps understand what they are going through.

Photo by Volkan Olmez

How to Talk to a Grieving Person

It can be very hard to know what to say to someone going through the loss of a loved one. I know I’ve always struggled with it.

Leslie Horn has a written great post about How to Talk to a Grieving Person. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are some key takeaways:

  • Keep it Simple: “You can start out by saying, ‘I am here for you, however you need,” says Shreya Mandal, a therapist who specializes in grief and lost her own father three years ago. “It should be as simple as that. You don’t have to come up with something flowery.”

  • Be Honest: “I remember this woman coming up to our cousin Ester at our Uncle Paul’s shiva, six weeks earlier, a few days before my dad’s diagnosis,” says my friend Jeff, who lost his father six years ago. “This woman said, ‘This sucks. Sorry, someone had to say it.’ And it was really refreshing!”

  • Forget The Clichés: “Forget everything you think you’re supposed to say. My father was religious, and while I could appreciate the intent behind something like, ‘I’m praying for you,’ it didn’t really have the desired effect. Speak from the heart.”

  • Don’t Walk on Eggshells: “I loved that my closest friends…didn’t walk on eggshells around me like so many people did, which just made me feel worse. My friends provided me with a sense of normalcy among all the jarring changes that came with such a loss.”

  • Tell Stories: “I loved hearing other people tell stories about Mama, and still do to this day,” Windsar told me. “Hearing about how much she loved her family or how good of a friend she was, or hearing a story about something quirky she did that was just ‘so Darla’ comforted me and often made me laugh—something I truly felt I might never be able to do again.”

  • Be Present: “Make yourself available. Check in often. Make plans with that person. I’ve always been a planner, but after my dad died, that part of me took a hiatus. I had a friend who recognized that very quickly, and began purposefully and dutifully taking the lead in making plans with me. I saw that, and it helped me keep going.”

  • Know That There’s No Timeline: “There’s no such thing as a time when everything should be okay, no script, no right or wrong way to grieve. I haven’t been able to delete my dad’s phone number from my favorites; I also saved a pair of his leather loafers. One day I’ll delete the number and give the loafers to Goodwill. But I’m not ready to let those things go yet. It’s a process.”

  • If Nothing Else, Just Say You’re Sorry: “It means more than you know.”

You can check out the whole post here, it’s beautifully written and the comments section also has a lot of great stories and advice.