January 25, 2023

What To Do When You’re (Literally) Sick With Grief

Like other kinds of stress, grieving a loss can impact you physically and emotionally

Closeup of person sick with grief staring out rainy window.

It’s a harsh reality that losses happen to us all. Whether you’re mourning the death of a loved one or recoiling from the end of a relationship or leaving a job or experiencing any other life-altering loss, it’s only natural to have some downright tough days ahead.

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While we’ll all grieve in our own particular ways, clinical psychologist Regina Josell, PsyD, says there are similarities in the way people experience loss. And in addition to emotional upheaval, many of us will experience physical symptoms of our grief.

“Grief is a normal and natural process. It’s how we as humans react to a loss in our life,” Dr. Josell says. “Anything that feels like a loss can trigger our grief response, and that can cause a wave of emotional and behavioral symptoms, as well as effects on our physical well-being.”

Dr. Josell helps explain why grief can make you sick and how to manage your grief as you find your new normal.

What grief looks like

The way grief affects us and how we cope with it will be different from person to person and situation to situation. You may grieve the loss of a beloved pet differently from the loss of financial stability after filing for bankruptcy. Or your response to losing a grandparent who passed away from a long illness may be different from how you mourn when a friend is in a fatal accident.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. But whatever the loss, it’s normal for grief to come with some big feelings that tend to follow certain patterns.

One of the most popular theories of how we experience grief comes from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages:

  1. Denial: Not quite wrapping your head around the loss, or trying to muster through life without fully confronting your grief.
  2. Anger: Feeling irritable, lashing out or blaming yourself or others for your loss.
  3. Bargaining: Often taking the form of “if only” thinking, as in, “If only I would have called, I would have been able to save them.”
  4. Depression: Different from clinical depression, “grief-pression” is more directly tied to your loss and can include feelings of sadness, tearfulness and a loss of hope.
  5. Acceptance: Learning to live with your loss as a “new normal.”

The stages of grief are better thought of as an interconnected web, rather than points on a straight line.

“Not everyone will experience all these stages for every loss,” Dr. Josell notes, “And the effects of grief aren’t something that everybody goes through nice and neatly. It’s not necessarily sequential or linear.”

Meaning that one day you might find yourself tearing up as you listen to a song you enjoyed with a loved one who passed away (depression). And then, you suddenly think to yourself that you should text them to tell them you’re thinking of them (denial). And then you can become enraged at them for passing away and leaving you alone (anger).

In that way, the stages of grief are a bit of a pinball game, where you’re the ball and get whacked by a metaphorical flipper every now and again, bouncing and bumping all over the place.

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Physical effects

As you ping-pong through various aspects of grief, one constant remains: Grieving is stressful. And stress can throw your physical health some curveballs.

“Stress is anything that requires us to change or adapt, and when we experience a loss, we have no choice but to try to adapt,” Dr. Josell states. “The stress of living with grief can certainly exacerbate physical symptoms that we may have already been experiencing, and it can trigger some new effects out of the blue.”

Dr. Josell says it’s normal and common for the stress, and therefore, grief, to manifest itself in some changes to your physical well-being, such as:

  • Aches and pains.
  • Chest pains or a feeling like your heart is racing.
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
  • Headaches, dizziness or shaking.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
  • Stomach or digestive problems.
  • Weakened immune system (which can leave you more vulnerable to contagious diseases).

How you feel your grief physically can mimic the ways your body has responded to stress in other situations, too.

“Some people are more prone to headaches. So, when they’re stressed, they probably going get more headaches,” Dr. Josell says. “Same with people who are more prone to stomachaches or nausea. Stress and grief have a way of exacerbating discomfort where our bodies are already most vulnerable.”

Strategies for living with grief

Dr. Josell says it’s important to recognize that grief — and all its impacts on your thoughts, emotions, behavior and body — is a normal experience. And while we won’t all feel grief in the same way, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t had to overcome some kind of loss in their lifetime.

How to manage it? That’s also a personal experience, but Dr. Josell offers these suggestions.

Care for yourself

The grieving process can be a long journey, and Dr. Josell says that starting with addressing your physical well-being is the first step.

“Get back to the basics,” she advises. “If you think of life as a house, the foundation of your house is taking care of your body. Without a solid base, the rest of the house isn’t going to hold up.”

Building your foundation can include things like:

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  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Eating healthy foods.
  • Exercising.
  • Getting out into nature.
  • Staying hydrated.

Seek support

“Grief must be witnessed to be healed,” Dr. Josell says. “We all have a story. Telling your story can be healing.”

How and with whom you share your thoughts may look different to different people.

Sharing your thoughts, feelings and memories with your friends or family members can help you process your grief. If they, too, are grieving the loss, you can bond over shared memories and talk about what you’re each experiencing, if it feels comfortable and safe for you to do that. If sharing your grief out loud doesn’t feel good at the moment, journaling can also help you unpack your grief.

Other sources of grief support can include:

  • Religious leaders and groups.
  • Support groups (virtual or in person).
  • Licensed mental health providers.

Feel your feelings

Living with grief can be like living in a fog. But eventually, the clouds must lift, and you’ll forge ahead with life in a new way. Dr. Josell says it’s also important to give yourself some grace as your move ahead.

“Getting back engaged in your life with chores and work or whatever it is can help you recover. But you have to also be gentle with yourself right now,” she encourages.

“Too often we try to rush the process and throw ourselves back into the deep end before we’ve really done ourselves the favor of reflecting and feeling. Trying to ignore or stifle your grief can just prolong the process and wind up making you feel worse.”

Know when to seek help

Grief that continues for an extended period of time or that includes severe emotional or physical symptoms should be addressed by a healthcare provider.

“If you’re getting out of bed, you’re going to work or you’re resuming your regular activities, even on a slower or less intense basis, you’re probably doing OK,” Dr. Josell says. “But if you can’t reengage in activities of daily living, that may be indicative of a problem. Or if someone is feeling suicidal, that is indicative of a problem that deserves medical attention.”

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