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Surviving Grief

The death of a loved one can be earth shattering. The suddenness of the loss is often destabilizing and traumatizing, and the brain’s ability to keep up with and make sense of the information at hand is overwhelming. If you have never experienced loss before, you may be surprised by the overwhelming feelings, emotions and the impact grief have on your mind, body and spirit. For this reason, grief can be scary. Understanding how grief can show up, what it may look like and ways to work with and through it, can help reduce this sense of fear and actually improve your relationship to grief and your grief experience.


One of the most common statements I hear from grieving clients is, “How do you survive the pain of grief?”. Whether it is a few days or months later - even a year later, there is a need to escape the pain of grief. That makes sense, doesn’t it? No one likes feeling bad. Just like catching a cold or the flu, we get into the worst part of the illness and struggle with the pain, wishing it away as fast as possible. Yet, unlike the common illness we have experience with, grief holds onto us with an intensity that is impossible to describe. It takes our breath from our souls. It stops our minds from functioning and our bodies from moving. Then, at times it lets up, and we can breathe. We feel like we may be “getting better”. Then it’s back, crashing down on us with thunderous intensity, driving us into hard, rocky shores, leaving us battered and exhausted all over again. We feel like this will never end.


Grief is our overall reaction to a loss and it can be emotional, physical and spiritual in nature. Grief is natural. It is normal. It is needed. And grief looks like a million different things and how it shows up for each of us is never wrong. Grief is messy, painful and just hard. Acknowledging this truth can be a first step to working through your grief experience.


When a loved one dies, the impact can be very traumatic. Depending on your relationship, the manner of death and the age of your loved one, to just name a few things, many different thoughts, questions, feelings and emotions will come to the surface. Your brain will work to make sense of the loss and your emotions can range from very deep sadness to absolute rage. These emotions can sway throughout a day or week, or even a few minutes. This is both natural, and normal.


As you grieve, it is important to know there are actual physiological responses to grief. You are not going crazy. It is equally important to understand the normalcy of a wide range of emotions, feelings and thoughts that come as a result of this very difficult time. Finally, it is imperative that we practice self-care in a way that ensures our minds, bodies and spirits are both supported and nourished.


The Impact of Grief on Your Mind


In The Grieving Brain, Mary-Frances O’Connor explains to us the physiological response to grief. I share this with you in hopes that this helps to normalizes your experience, and gives some understanding around how your body responds to grief.


Think of your brain as a conductor of sorts, with virtual maps inside the brain, which have on them all of your loved ones. You know, more or less, where you can find your loved ones, based on lived experiences, at any given time. If your partner or friend is at work during the day, your brain can “place” them there, and you are comfortable knowing this truth. There are actual neural pathways in your brain that have been mapped, that allow you to rest comfortably knowing where your social connections are throughout the day and night.

When a loved one dies, the brain is faced with the problem of “knowing” the person is not here, and yet, based on lived experience and the maps in place over the lifetime, it is working with the neural pathways that has your loved one encoded in the here and now. Your brain cannot reconcile that your loved one is “not here”. This becomes a very painful problem for the brain to solve, and is confusing and upsetting. And it takes the process of new experiences without your loved one, for the brain to begin to make a new map.


The Impact of Grief on Your Emotions


Emotions will run the spectrum of everything you can imagine to emotions you may not have ever really dealt with before. Allow these emotions to come. Feel what you’re feeling, give it a voice, sit with it, honor it, and know it will pass. Getting curious about these emotions and why they care coming up for you can help in the processing of your thoughts. Grief emotions ebb and flow and are often tied together with others (blame/guilt, anger/sadness) and can take us by surprise. Find a trusted resource (family member, partner, friend) and ask them to help you talk through your emotions.


The Impact of Grief on Your Body


The impact of the stress of your loved one’s death will result in an impact on your body. The mind and body are intricately connected. Stress is inevitable, and with it comes inflammation as a result of the cortisol response. The shock to the mind translates to “danger” to the body, and our cortisol levels are immediately impacted. It is paramount that at this time you fuel your body with the cleanest foods possible, avoid sugars, refined carbohydrates and alcohol. Drink as much water as you can, eat small, healthy snacks throughout the day if you cannot eat a meal, and rest when you can. Your sleep will likely be disturbed. Your brain is trying to solve the problem of a loved one not being in this dimension and you will consciously or not, be working to adjust to this absence.

One of the most important things you can do for you right now is breathing. Big, long deep breaths, that go into the diaphragm, filling your abdomen. Regulating our breathing is one way of telling the brain that it is safe. Practice deep breathing now. Inhale to the count of 4, hold for 4. Exhale to the count of 4. Hold for 4. Repeat. Breathing is one of the best tools to self-regulate, ground and calm our minds and bodies.


The Impact of Grief on Your Spirit


Whether you consider yourself spiritual, religious or none of the above, the essence of who you are will undoubtedly be in need of care and attention. If you have a spiritual community, lean on them. If you practice mediation, yoga or affirmations, try to do this now, even for just a few minutes. Going into nature is a beautiful, restorative way to connect to peace, so I always suggest finding a spot in the woods or under a tree and just connecting to nature as a way to find peace and healing.


What to Expect


Below is a list of things you can expect in acute grief. This is in no way a complete list, as again, grief is unique, and some, all or none of this may be your experience.


Loss of appetite Disbelief

Heart palpitations Insomnia

Frequent yawning Forgetfulness

Dizziness/fogginess Feeling of un-reality

Distracting thoughts Questioning why

Trouble concentrating/focusing Looking for answers

Lack of energy/fatigue Headaches

Uncontrollable crying Chest pain

Stomachaches Tension throughout body

Grief is a life-long journey. It can, and really must be, a journey that ultimately provides healing, learning and growth, as challenging as that may seem right now. We all grieve differently, and based on our own experiences or the circumstances of a loss, we may need help processing, understanding and healing. Speak the truth of your grief. Talk to your friends and family, lean on your support systems and express your grief in ways that support your healing. If you feel like you want or need additional help and resources, explore counseling services in your community and find a grief counselor who can help. You are not alone on this journey and you can heal through, and with, grief.

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