It’s a well known fact that stress plays a role in many health conditions.
And I think most of us would agree that child loss is one of (if not THE) most stressful events a heart might endure.
So it’s unsurprising that bereaved parents find themselves battling a variety of physical problems in the wake of burying a child.
What may be surprising is how uninformed medical and even psychological professionals are with respect to the very real ways child loss intersects with chronic conditions and often creates new symptoms.
Here is a list of only SOME of the physical manifestations of grief (via What’s Your Grief?) with my own comments :
Fatigue. If you’ve always been an energetic sort, you might find this aspect of grief particularly disconcerting. This kind of fatigue doesn’t get better with rest. I’ve written about that here.
Some days I can barely make myself get out of bed and when I do, I struggle to do any but the most necessary tasks. Don’t automatically dismiss this symptom as ONLY grief (although it most certainly could be!) get a thorough check-up to rule out other causes such as low thyroid, diabetes, heart disease, major depressive disorder or a number of conditions that can be treated effectively with medicine. Don’t beat yourself up if the doctor decides “nothing is wrong” with you. You are grieving and grief is work! I know this symptom has improved for me over time as I’ve established boundaries, admitted limitations and learned to rest when necessary.
Aches and Pains. Our bodies and minds are connected in ways not well understood. Mental and emotional distress can make any underlying pain condition that much worse. When I’m feeling especially lonely, desperate or sad my autoimmune disease flares AND my perception of the very real pain that causes is heightened. Pain and heartache can lead to a downward spiral that is hard to undo. Get help and treatment for the physical and give yourself grace and space to endure the emotional causes of body aches. Don’t self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive coping strategies. Reach out to a safe person and let them help you find a better way.
Headaches. Needless to say, stress makes tension headaches more likely. Sometimes, though, a headache can be a symptom of something more serious. Don’t dismiss an especially sudden, intense or long-lasting headache as “just grief”. It could be previously undiagnosed high blood pressure, stroke or migraine. Those being ruled out, various relaxation techniques, cold or warm compresses, over-the-counter analgesics and gentle stretches might help.
Sometimes grief headaches can be alleviated by the simple act of telling our stories. Bottling up emotions and thoughts adds to the ongoing stress and tension of my child loss burden. When I spill them-either on paper in a journal, in a closed online bereaved parents’ group or in person to a safe friend or family member-often I feel the band around my head relax and the pain fade away.
Tightness in Chest, Shortness of Breath. The day I got the awful news, I remember asking friends who came to sit with me over and over, ” Am I still breathing?” My world was spinning out of control and my body responded. Anxiety after child loss is real. Broken Heart Syndrome is real. Heart attacks are not uncommon. Don’t ignore these symptoms. But don’t be surprised if they persist despite all tests to the contrary. When I feel trapped and overwhelmed, a walk outside or even to another room can help. Deep breathing exercises and grounding exercises can often interrupt an episode.
Forgetfulness. I wrote this post on Grief Brain: It’s a Real Thing! a couple years ago and am always surprised to see it shared repeatedly. But I think it strikes a chord with any heart walking through grief. You are not crazy! You are not experiencing early onset dementia (most likely). Like other symptoms, get checked out if they persist or worsen. But odds are, your experience falls within the range of normal for anyone whose life has been shattered by child loss. Losing things, forgetting things, getting lost in familiar places, missing appointments or bill payments, inability to remember names of people you know well-all of these are common after loss. In time, the symptoms usually diminish. They have for me. I still have to rely on lists and reminders much more often, though. And that’s OK.
Inability to Focus. Like grief brain, this is another cognitive manifestation that’s not only annoying, it can impact life in significant ways. Before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I was an avid reader. I often had three or four books going at the same time. I could spend hours focused on a single project. Not anymore. I sometimes find it difficult to read a recipe.
I have to take frequent breaks when working on something because my mind gets fuzzy and I just can’t pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Some bereaved parents have to change jobs or careers because they are not able to perform necessary tasks anymore. This particular symptom has not improved very much for me although I’ve found ways around it. I use lists to keep an external record of what I should be doing and when. I mix up mindless chores with ones that require more attention to give my brain a break. I try to dissect larger jobs into smaller, manageable chunks. And sometimes I just have to admit that today a particular thing just isn’t happening.
Appetite or Digestive Issues. Stress has long been linked to gut problems. I suspect we’ve all had that “rumbling in our tummy” from time to time even before child loss. For many of us it’s exponentially worse after. Some bereaved parents try to stuff emotions by stuffing themselves with food. Others can’t eat at all. Still others experience stomach ulcers or bowel disease ranging from acute to chronic. I was hospitalized twice in the first year after my son’s death for serious colon issues.
Again, don’t ignore sudden or persistent symptoms. Try to eat well and avoid self-medicating with food. Added pounds rarely add up to better emotional or mental health. I let pounds I’d lost ten years ago find me again. Get help if you need to from someone willing to act as an accountability partner. I’ve recently joined a friend in setting goals for ourselves and sharing recipes and meal prep. Try to treat food as another aspect of grief work and manage it the best you can.
Getting Sick More Often. Stress lowers the immune system. That’s a fact. So when bereaved parents encounter germs (as we all do from time to time) it may well be our bodies don’t have the energy or resources to combat them. Colds, flu, strep throat, skin infections may all be more likely this side of child loss. Don’t be discouraged to seek treatment. There is so much we can’t control in life, but getting antibiotics for an infection is pretty easy.
It’s not in your head, mom or dad!
Grief has real physical manifestations.
Don’t be dismissed or denied the care you need.
Educate your healthcare providers and insist on being heard.
*photo credit: The Weight of Grief Scupture ~ Celeste Roberge*