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What Grief Does To Your Body (And How To Manage It)

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What Grief Does To The Body (And How To Manage It)

In life, we will almost all lose loved ones and suffer bereavement. For most people, this starts with grandparents, eventually moves to parents, and then people our own generation; partners, siblings, close friends. And of course, sometimes and perhaps most devastatingly, we can lose people younger than ourselves.

For something that almost everyone suffers, there is often very little in the way of preparation given beforehand, and afterwards, a condolences card is nice but can’t do a lot for our mental health.

And with mental health, our physical health can go too, if we very understandably neglect it at such a time.

So, how to survive devastating loss, and come out the other side, hopefully thriving? It seems like a tall order indeed.

First, the foundations:

You’re probably familiar with the stages of grief. In their most commonly-presented form, they are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

You’ve probably also heard/read that we won’t always go through them in order, and also that grief is deeply personal and proceeds on its own timescale.

It is generally considered healthy to go through them.

What do they look like?

Naturally this can vary a lot from person to person, but examples in the case of bereavement could be:

  1. Denial: “This surely has not really happened; I’ll carry on as though it hasn’t”
  2. Anger: “Why didn’t I do xyz differently while I had the chance?!”
  3. Bargaining: “I will do such-and-such in their honor, and this will be a way of expressing the love I wish I could give them in a way they could receive”
  4. Depression: “What is the point of me without them? The sooner I join them, the better.”
  5. Acceptance: “I was so lucky that we had the time together that we did, and enriched each other’s lives while we could”

We can speedrun these or we can get stuck on one for years. We can bounce back and forth. We can think we’re at acceptance, and then a previous stage will hit us like a tonne of bricks.

What if we don’t?

Assuming that our lost loved one was indeed a loved one (as opposed to someone we are merely societally expected to mourn), then failing to process that grief will tend to have a big impact on our life—and health. These health problems can include:

As you can see, three out of five of those can result in death. The other two aren’t great either. So why isn’t this taken more seriously as a matter of health?

Death is, ironically, considered something we “just have to live with”.

But how?

Coping strategies

You’ll note that most of the stages of grief are not enjoyable per se. For this reason, it’s common to try to avoid them—hence denial usually being first.

But, that is like not getting a lump checked out because you don’t want a cancer diagnosis. The emotional reasoning is understandable, but it’s ultimately self-destructive.

First, have a plan. If a death is foreseen, you can even work out this plan together.

But even if that time has now passed, it’s “better late than never” to make a plan for looking after yourself, e.g:

  • How you will try to get enough sleep (tricky, but sincerely try)
  • How you will remember to eat (and ideally, healthily)
  • How you will still get exercise (a walk in the park is fine; see some greenery and get some sunlight)
  • How you will avoid self-destructive urges (from indirect, e.g. drinking, to direct, e.g. suicidality)
  • How you will keep up with the other things important in your life (work, friends, family)
  • How you will actively work to process your grief (e.g. journaling, or perhaps grief counselling)

Some previous articles of ours that may help:

If it works, it works

If we are all unique, then any relationship between any two people is uniqueness squared. Little wonder, then, that our grief may be unique too. And it can be complicated further:

  • Sometimes we had a complicated relationship with someone
  • Sometimes the circumstances of their death were complicated

There is, for that matter, such a thing as “complicated grief”:

Read more: Complicated grief and prolonged grief disorder (Medical News Today)

We also previously reviewed a book on “ambiguous loss”, exploring grieving when we cannot grieve in the normal way because someone is gone and/but/maybe not gone.

For example, if someone is in a long-term coma from which they may never recover, or if they are missing-presumed-dead. Those kinds of situations are complicated too.

Unusual circumstances may call for unusual coping strategies, so how can we discern what is healthy and what isn’t?

The litmus test is: is it enabling you to continue going about your life in a way that allows you to fulfil your internal personal aspirations and external social responsibilities? If so, it’s probably healthy.

Look after yourself. And if you can, tell your loved ones you love them today.

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