“What is happening to my body?” – the anatomy of grief

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Bethany has written a fantastic blog about a topic we’ve not covered before: what happens to your body, physically, after you are bereaved. Everyone has different symptoms, whether they are physical, mental or emotional, and this is just one example of the pain a bereavement can cause and it’s life-changing effects.

I am no doctor, but I am someone who lost their father very suddenly at twenty-four and who experienced the consequent emotional and physical fallout of it.

When you lose someone – in sudden circumstances or not – your body reacts to the emotional wound that has been afflicted and it can be a bit wild trying to a. Make sense of a life without someone whilst b. Making sense of what on earth is happening to your body.

The fight or flight response

My mental and physical state was very much in neutral in August 2018. The sun was shining, my life was all pub-gardens and enjoying the company of friends in London’s parks. My dad died on the August Bank Holiday and it was such a shock that my body’s equilibrium was shaken up for months afterwards.

In the same way you retract your hand after touching something hot, my body’s instinct to protect me from the trauma of my dad’s death was to enter in to what has been called the ‘fight or flight’ response, or the ‘stress response’.

The sudden thwack of heartbreak and pain sent me in to high-alert. My body’s instinct was to protect me from any more danger and pumped me with adrenaline so that I was ready to fight impending threats whilst simultaneously turn and run away.

A new default setting

Because of the psychological turmoil I was feeling, a permanent on-edge-ness became my default. I found it hard to sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, I felt anxious and started biting my nails, I was frustrated and tense, had shaky hands, and heart palpitations. I would hug my friends and they’d ask me why I was trembling; I didn’t even realise that I was.

Because of my surging adrenaline, I also started to lose weight – weight loss after a grievance is somewhat normal because you may find that you lose your appetite – but in my case by body actually started burning more calories just to fuel me; ready to attack and protect myself at any moment.

Finding it hard to sleep, and using more energy being on high-alert made me very tired, drained, and ultimately very frustrated and emotional. It felt like I was waiting backstage to give a TED Talk, but for six months. Fortunately, over time my body became accustomed to things and started to understand that I wasn’t about to be attacked, but that the attack had already happened. That’s when things got better.

Popping it back in to neutral

It’s important to listen to your body when you’ve been through a grievance. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel tearful, snappy, tired, and angry. It doesn’t mean that you’re not coping.

When someone dies it’s like throwing a stone in to a calm lake and the ripples go on for a while; the healing process is not linear and the ripples will be around for a few months, if not years, afterwards. And that’s okay.

Here are some ways that I calm myself down and get back in to neutral:

  • Breathing exercises and meditation (The Headspace app is really good for these)
  • Reading takes your mind off things and allows you a break from being on-duty.
  • Running and other exercise tricks your mind in to thinking that you really are running from danger and it expels some tension (again, I’m not a doctor, but it works).
  • Sleeping is really important. Your body is going through a lot and you need to rest it. No judgement for tucking in to bed at 20:30 on a Saturday night.
  • Eating is really important. You have to refuel yourself and replenish your stocks; you may not feel like eating, but your body will thank you for it.

Your body is doing its best to look after you, and although it can feel nonsensical sometimes, listening to your instincts and working in unison with yourself will help you settle back in to the serene August lake that you were before this horrible thing happened.

Bethany Fenton

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