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The week that was – How loss can hurt like hell

Published 9 months ago 22nd November 2021 by Susan Smyth

This week I was reminded of how loss can hurt like hell and hit like a bang out of nowhere, it got me thinking of how I was once asked, 6 weeks after losing my father, was I over it? This question, given the amount of pain I was experiencing at the time, shocked me, but when I thought back to my days before loss, I would have thought exactly the same thing. I, like many others before loss, would have assumed that grief was a few weeks of crying and sadness.

Nobody can prepare you for grief and while everyone is different and deals with and experiences grief differently, there are some aspects which will affect all. Obviously intense and profound sadness, but while grief affects mental health, it also can have a huge effect on the body physically which is seldom discussed.

In an article written by Good Therapy, the physical problems which can affect a person due to grief are discussed in detail. There can be particular heart risks associated with grief, one study found that the death of a loved one can increase the chance of heart attack. There is also a specific temporary syndrome brought on by the death of a loved one called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome”. Broken heart syndrome is caused by a disruption in the blood being pumped to one section of the heart. Because of this it mimics the effects of a heart attack, however it is temporary and you can actually be treated for this. It’s worth mentioning, if you do experience any chest pains or symptoms to please call your doctor.

Another affect can be a lowered immune system, in a 2014 study, it was found, and in particular in older adults after the loss of a spouse, they could not maintain a stress hormone balance and were less likely to produce some types of white blood cells. Also many people experience colds and flus during and after intense grief.

Body aches and pains are also something which are rarely discussed yet affect almost everybody during the grieving process, they are a common physical symptom of grief. The pain is caused by the overwhelming amount of stress hormones being released during the grieving process, again this process is temporary.

Digestive issues, many people seek comfort in food during periods of grief, others simply can’t eat due to anxiety caused by stress hormones, and grief inspires binge eating, loss of appetite, nausea and IBS.

Another less discussed issue can be unhealthy coping mechanisms, it is normal to want relief from the pain of grief but some coping mechanisms can become unhealthy, such as overeating, not eating enough, turning to alcohol, cigarettes, risky behaviour, even casual sex which is almost never discussed but many people can seek relief in connection through sex which is normal but like all coping mechanisms can become a problem if not recognised or If they become a habit.

Sleep problems and fatigue are a huge issue during periods of grief. Sleep is a time when the body and mind repair themselves, sleep disruption during grief can be particularly frustrating. It can be debilitating to constantly feel sad, anxious and exhausted.

All of these affects should be temporary, but again there is no time limit on grief and everybody experiences grief differently. If you feel after a certain period of time that you can’t move on grief counselling can be extremely helpful for some, helping to process feelings. Sometimes it can be a help just to talk.

For those who have not experienced grief, there have been many articles written on the “stages of grief” your feelings may happen in stages and while grief is indeed a process, there is no set way to experience these stages which can occur at any time and not in the order they are listed, it is no longer considered an idea way to think about grief but you may have heard of the stages.

Denial: When you first learn of a loss it is normal to think “this isn’t happening” you may feel shocked or very numb, this is a temporary defence mechanism of the body to protect you from the rush of overwhelming emotions.
Anger: As reality sets in and you’re faced with the pain of your loss you may feel very frustrated and helpless, this can cause feelings of anger which you may direct towards yourself or others, anger is a very common feeling during the grieving process you may even feel anger towards the loved one who died.

Bargaining: During this stage you dwell on the things you could have done to prevent the loss, at this time you may have numerous thoughts of “what if” and “if only” and how you think you could have done better, if you are religious you may try to strike a deal with a higher power. These feelings are normal and will affect the majority of people during the grieving process.

Depression: Sadness sets in and you begin to come to terms with the loss and the affect it will have on you, at this point you may particularly miss the person, feel sad, cry a lot have sleep issues, a decreased appetite, feel no joy in activities you once loved, feel overwhelmed, regretful and lonely.

Acceptance: In this final stage of grief you accept the reality of your loss and the fact that it cannot be changed. Although you still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life.

It’s important to note that these stages of grief can happen randomly and not in the order listed. Everyone experiences grief differently but most will experience the above stages. It is also important to note that acceptance does come and you can and will be happy again. During the dark cloud of grief it can feel almost impossible to ever feel like you can be happy again but you can.

However grief does have a profound effect on both the body and mind. If you are experiencing grief at the moment, just remember to take your time, be gentle with yourself and reach out if you need help. The citizen’s information board has helpful information on its website which is short and easy read, they also have a useful booklet, Bereavement: Information for those affected by bereavement. There is also a counselling and support service. You can contact by calling 0761 07 4000 for a copy of the booklet.

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