Research Paper By Mary Kathryn Marcom
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
As I have coached clients both in my business and as a church group leader, I have been aware of just how much a person’s physical health may be affected by their grief. In working with those who are both grieving the death of a loved one and the caregivers who are caring for a loved one, I have observed signs of their physical suffering. Often they are not even aware of the outward signs given by their body. I have learned to look for them and to pay attention to them, as it lets me know those who are taking care of themselves and those who are not. Sometimes I can even hear it in their voice. Though I do not work with other types of grieving clients as much as those grieving a death, the same is true of those who have had any major loss – loss of a job, a home, a spouse through divorce, a pet, or any other loss. No matter the loss, the physical effect can be profound.
Though my coaching with grieving clients primarily focuses on their spiritual and emotional needs, it is just as important to be sure they are meeting their physical needs. The physical responses to grief and trauma can be detrimental to their long term health. These responses are not always talked about when a client is in the initial stages of grief, as the focus is more on basic overall emotional survival, and they may attribute their physical responses to something else, as most people do not address the physical issues.
The focus of the paper here is to learn a little more about the research is done on the topic of how grief can affect the body. The length of time a person grieves varies for everyone, and it has no set schedule.
According to an article from the University of Texas, some of the normal physical reactions to grief are difficulty concentrating, frustration, ambivalence, lack of energy and motivation, depression, and guilt. Other signs, taken from an article in Very Well Mind, are digestive problems such as diarrhea or constipation, nausea, impaired motor skills or lack of concentration that affects driving, illness such as flu due to a suppressed immune system response, dry mouth, noise sensitivity, trembling or shaking, tightness in the throat or chest, shortness of breath, and even increased allergy symptoms. Nervousness is another, such as fidgeting, sweaty hands or feet, and feelings of numbness in the hands and feet.
Very Well Mind, in their article, How to “Cope with the Physical Effects of Grief,” also discusses how grief can cause weight gain or weight loss, sleeping too much or too little, or being too hot or too cold. It can cause pain or discomfort from migraines, aches in the neck, back, or joints and the article addresses how some people who are already at high risk might have a heart attack following the death of a close loved one. This seems to be especially true of spouses, who are at increased risk of having a severe anxiety attack during the first year after the loss of their partner.
Plenty of other research exists to prove how profoundly grief can affect the body. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, grieving spouses had a higher risk of any cause of mortality, not just heart attack, but also stroke, cancer, and accidents or violence. The study also showed an increased health risk that continued many years after the initial grief period, especially in surviving spouses.
All people who are grieving are at risk of any physical symptoms. A story done by the BBC describes the symptoms some people have experienced. The mother of a murdered soldier said she had felt daily chest pains since her son’s death. The mother of a ten-year-old who died talked about feeling like she couldn’t breathe. Words like “heartache”, “hurt,” and “pain” are used often and say they feel them as physical sensations. A broadcaster interviewed said she felt a heavyweight in her stomach almost like she had a very bad stomach bug. Another woman interviewed for the story said she didn’t feel hungry and became so thin that people looked at her with horror.
Though the physical symptoms that can appear when people are grieving have been well-documented in research and witnessed by grief counsellors and coaches, most grieving people are shocked by their feelings of pain or illness and think something bad is wrong with them. This is because the physical impact of grief is something that is not widely discussed or acknowledged.
Fortunately, the physical impact of grief can be minimized by paying attention to the symptoms and taking care of oneself. Being sure that the grieving person gets plenty of rest, eats and drinks exercises, and takes care of their overall will improve all these symptoms. Having someone to talk to and to share their feelings with is extremely important. Often family and friends are too close to the person to be able to help, and that’s where a Grief Coach can be valuable.
As a Coach who works with those who grieve, I do mainly blended coaching which is necessary with those who are in emotional pain. One of the important things I do before I begin work with a client is to send them a couple of handouts that I created over time, both from my own experience with grief and from my experience working with others who are grieving. One of the handouts is simply a list of 187 “feeling” words that I was given by my Al-anon sponsor many years ago. This seems to be helpful when people are in the initial stages of grief and are unable to give words for their feelings. The second handout I give them is a list of what symptoms and signs they can expect to experience now that they are grieving. The third handout includes how to cope. I suggest they give these last two to their close family and friends as well, so they, too, will understand what their grieving friend is feeling.
Now that I have done this research, I will add a little more to my handout on what to expect when you’re grieving. I will add more about physical symptoms, as I have learned about more symptoms from doing this research.
The University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center,
“We’ll Help You Figure It Out”, Grief and Loss https://cmhc.utexas.edu/griefloss.html
Science Direct, “Grief” https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/grief
Very Well Mind, “How to Cope with the Physical Effects of Grief”, 2017
BBC News, “How Does Grief Cause Pain”, May 6, 2016
National Center on Caregiving, Family Caregiver Alliance, “Grief and Loss” https://www.caregiver.org/grief-and-loss