Healing Your Grieving Body: Physical Practices for Mourners

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief.” – C.S. Lewis

This articleis in your hands because you are in mourning. You have been “torn apart” and have some very special needs right now. Among these special needs is to nurture yourself in five important ways: physically; emotionally; cognitively; socially;and spiritually. While all of these areas are vitally important, this book focuses on practical ways to nurture yourself in the physical realm.

When you are in mourning, you usually feel under-rested and overwhelmed. Your body is probably letting you know it feels distress. You may feel you have no strength left for your own basic needs, let alone the needs of others. Actually, one literal definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.” Yes, right now your body is telling you it has, just like your heart, been “torn apart” and has some special needs!

Your body is so very wise. It will try to slow you down and invite you to authentically mourn the losses that touch your life. The emotions of grief are often experienced as bodily-felt energies. We mourn life losses from the inside out. In our experience as a physician and grief counselor, it is only when we care for ourselves physically that we can integrate our losses emotionally and spiritually. Allow us to introduce you to how your body attempts to slow you down and prepare you to mourn your life losses.

Among the most common physical responses to loss are trouble sleeping and low energy. It is so common we even have a fancy term for it-the “lethargy of grief.” You are probably finding that your normal sleep patterns have been thrown off. Perhaps you are having difficulty getting to sleep, but even more commonly, you may wake up early in the morning and have trouble getting back to sleep. During your grief journey your body needs more rest than usual. You may also find yourself getting tired more quickly-sometimes even at the start of the day.

Sleeping normally after a loss would be unusual. If you think about it, sleep is the primary way in which we release control. When you experience a life loss, you feel a great loss of control. At a subconscious level, you may notwant to lose any more control by sleeping. So sleep problems are very natural in the face of life losses.

Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergy symptoms, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation, and generalized tension-these are all ways your body may react to losses that you encounter in life.

The stress of grief can suppress your immune system and make you more vulnerable to physical problems. If you have a chronic existing health challenge, it may become worse. Right now you may not feel in control of how your body is responding. Your body is communicating with you about the special needsit has right now. Befriending and mindfully giving attention to your physical symptoms will allow you to discover your body’s native intelligence.

Yet, it can be difficult to slow down and care for your body when you are surrounded by common societal messages that tell us to be strong in the face of grief. Have you had anyone tell you things like, “Keep busy,” “Carry on,” or “You need to put the past in the past”? These and other similar messages often discourage you from practicing physical self-care, which, by contrast, is needed because it invites you to suspend. In actuality, when you are in mourning, you need to slow down, to turn inward, to embrace feelings of loss, and to seek and accept support. No, it is not always easy to care for your physical being in a mourning-avoidant culture. Without doubt, physical self-care takes time, mindfulness, and discernment.

You must realize that physical self-care is vitally important to you right now or you probably would not have picked up this book. As you know, your body is the house you live in. Just as your house requires care and maintenance to protect you from outside elements, your body requires that you honor it and be kind and gentle to it. The quality of your life ahead depends on how you care for your body today. The lethargy of grief you are probably experiencing is a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to care for your body.

To practice physical self-care doesn’t mean you are feeling sorry for yourself; rather it means you are allowing yourself to have courage to pay attention to your special needs. For it is in physically nurturing yourselfthat you can eventually allow yourself the time and loving attention you need to journey through your grief to discover a fullness of living and loving again. That is why we encourage anyone who is in the midst of grief to put “nurture my physical self” right at the top of the daily to-do list.

Taking care of your physical self during this naturally vulnerable time in your life is essentially about personal guardianship. It means accepting personal responsibility for your own special health needs as part of your need to self-nurture. We are honored to provide you some information that we believe can and will help you in this endeavor, but just as your body is yours, so is the responsibility you have to care for it.

Right now your “divine spark”-that which gives your life meaning and purpose-may feel like it has been muted or even turned completely off. In large part, our hope is that this book helps your “physical switch” stay on, even if part of you wants to keep it in the off position. You see, we believe if we can help you take care of your physical body, over time and with no rewards for speed, your spirit, your “life force” or divine spark, can be re-ignited, and you can find renewed meaning and even joy in your life.

So, self-care is about being reminded to care for your body with the right actions, right living, and right thinking. You will practice self-care when you believe that you deserve it and when you love yourself enough to carry it out. The presence of daily, thoughtful care of your grieving body is a clear reflection of your holiness, and a lack of self-care represents an internal disregard for your being. So, as difficult as it may be for you right now, caring for your body is vital to your temporary surviving and your longer-term thriving.

Copyright 2007, Center for Loss and Life Transition

Molly Keating
Molly Keating
Molly grew up in and around funeral homes her entire life. In 2009 she began working for O'Connor Mortuary and found a bridge between her passion for writing and her interest in grief and bereavement. In 2016 she earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. She is honored to be able to write about these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective.

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