Bereaved Parents Month Post: Physical Manifestations of Grief

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.  

grief head in hands and stress words

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.

charlie brown too tired to cry

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.

painlevels

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.

Broken_Heart_syndrome_EN-01

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.

griefbrain1

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.

the struggle bus

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. 

the weight of grief without words

*photo credit:  The Weight of Grief  Scupture ~ Celeste Roberge*

 

Child Loss and Secondary Losses

While I certainly had no real idea in the first hours or even weeks what losing a child entailed, I understood plainly that it meant I would not have Dominic to see, hold or talk to.

I wouldn’t be able to hug his neck or telephone him.  

He wouldn’t be sitting at my table any more.

But the death of a child or other loved one has a ripple effect.  It impacts parts of life you might not expect.  As time went on, I was introduced to a whole list of losses commonly called “secondary losses”.

secondary losses

Here are just a few:

Loss of a large chunk of “self”.  Dominic possessed part of my heart and part of my life.  It was violently ripped away when he died.  There is part of me that was uniquely reflected from him-like a specialty mirror.  I can never access that part of me again.

Loss of identity.  Before Dominic died I was one kind of mother.  I was a mother of four living children who were making their way in the world as successful adults.  I was a mother looking forward with happy anticipation to the next years.  Now I am still a mother of four children but one whose heart has been changed by tragedy and sorrow. Tomorrow is still bright, but there’s a shadow just behind it.

desimones uab family

Loss of self-confidence.  I used to enter a room without a thought to how I’d be received or perceived.  That’s definitely not the case now.  I’m self-conscious-constantly wondering if I’m saying or doing the right thing.  I never know if a grief trigger will (at best) pull my attention away from conversation or (at worst) send me scurrying for the bathroom.

Loss of sense of security.  I think every parent has moments of fear over his or her child.  When they first go off someplace without us, when they get a driver’s license, travel abroad, go to college.  But all the awful things I imagined didn’t hold a candle to the reality of waking one morning to a knock on my door and the news that Dominic had been killed.  The bottom fell out of my (relatively) safe world.  Bad things, random things can and do happen.  Once it happened to ME, it changed how I processed everything.  The passing years have softened some of the anxiety but I will never be able to assume safety again.

Anxiety

Loss of faith.  I did not “lose” my faith.  I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control.  But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how I thought He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son.  It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality.  I am learning that doubt is not denial and that I have to live with unanswered questions.

Loss of family structure.  I’ve written before that a family is more than the arithmetic total of the number of members.  There were six of us.  But we were so much more than six when we were all together!  Our talents, personalities and energy were amplified in community.  When Dominic’s large presence was suddenly whisked away, every relationship got skewed.  We’ve fought our way back to a semblance of “whole” but still miss him terribly.  We can function, but we will never be the same.

empty chair

Loss of my past.  Memories are funny things.  They are plastic and subject to change.  And my recall of an event is limited to my own perspective.  For a memory to be rich and full, I need input from others who were there as well.  One vessel of family memories is no longer available to add his unique contribution.  Every time I pull out a photo or dig down deep in my heart to draw up a treasured moment, I realize I’ve lost something I can not recover.  The joke, the glance, the odd detail are all gone.

Loss of the future I anticipated.  I’m a planner by nature.  Not a detailed, OCD, got-everything-in-order kind of planner, but a “big picture” kind of planner.  When Dominic left us in 2014, things were going (pretty much) according to plan.  Each child was well on his or her way to the career path they had chosen.  I was easing into an empty nest and exploring options for life after homeschooling.  My husband was entering his last few years of a lengthy career.  It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your world is shaken by child loss, everything gets scrambled.  You can’t just pick up where you left off and keep going with the pieces that remain. 

There’s a prolonged period of confusion and everyone is impacted differently and in ways you could never imagine.  All of us have changed dramatically in the years since Dominic left us.  He is not the only thing missing from the rest of our lives.  Holidays are altered.  Birthdays are different.  We have to plan special events around uncomfortable milestone dates that roll around every year whether we want them to or not.  It’s a constant readjustment to life as it IS instead of life as I thought it WOULD be.

Loss of ability to focus and function.  Oh, how this surprised me!  I was in some kind of zone for the first month after Dominic left.  My other children were home, we had to make it through planning his funeral, two graduations and cleaning out his apartment.  I also had to handle paperwork for my husband to take short-term disability due to grief.  I cried a lot, wrote down dozens of notes but managed to do what I had to do.  Then I crashed. I couldn’t remember a thing.  I couldn’t read more than a couple sentences at a time.  I hated the telephone.  I could barely stand to hear the television.  I had to make a list of the most basic things like brushing my teeth, feeding my animals, turning off all the lights before bed.  It was awful!  And it didn’t really get better for well over a year.

I still suffer from a very short attention span, low tolerance for noise and an inability to accommodate last minute changes.  I don’t schedule anything back to back.  I live in a rural area and sometimes shop in the nearby town.  I will start the day with a long list and shorten it repeatedly as I go along because driving in traffic, crowds and random sounds ramp up my anxiety and make me want to go home with or without what I came for.  I have changed the way I do so many things.  My pre-loss memory has never returned.  

griefbrain1

Loss of patience.  I am at once impatient and long-suffering.  I have zero patience for petty grievances, whining and complaining.  Yet I have compassion for other people living hard and unhappy stories.  I berate myself for not being “better” and, at the same time, extend grace to others who aren’t “better” either.  I want to shake people who bowl over weak, hurting, desperate souls.   I don’t have time for moaning about rain when you were planning a picnic but will listen for hours to a mama tell me about her missing child.

Loss of health.  I had a number of chronic health conditions before Dominic ran ahead.  Within the first year of his departure, I was hospitalized twice.  My experience is not unique.  Some parents suffer immediate health effects (heart attack, blood sugar spikes, anxiety/depression) and some see a slow decline over time.  In part because child loss, like any stressor, will negatively impact health and also because sometimes bereaved parents stop doing the things that help them stay healthy.  At almost five years, I’ve learned how to manage the stress better although some of my health issues continue to get worse.  It’s hard to tease apart what is age, what is disease and what is grief.

When your child leaves this life before you do, it changes everything.  

Not only things you might expect, but many you’d never imagine.  

It’s a constant balancing act, readjusting every day to new challenges.  

Struggling to keep my head above the waves.  

grief like the ocean learn to swim

 

 

Grief and Self-Care: Surviving the Unthinkable

My first instinct as a mother and a shepherd is always, “How can I help?”

I routinely set aside my own needs for the needs of others.  Not because I’m so selfless but because that’s how I’m made-I’ve always had the heart of a caretaker.

That’s not a bad thing, most of the time.

But if taking care of others means NOT taking care of myself, then in the end, I’m of no use to anyone.  When I allow every bit of energy-emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual-to drain away until there’s nothing left, I am unable to meet my most basic needs, much less the needs of others.

I’ve written before that grief puts a hole in my bucket It guarantees that no matter how much is poured in, I’m never truly full.

I’ve also written about setting boundaries and trying to preserve margin as I walk this Valley.  I have to create space between me and the people around me if I’m going to make it through.

But there are some other steps I can take to help ensure my heart is strong enough for the journey.  It’s not always about what I don’t do.

Sometimes it’s about what I choose TO do.

Here are some ideas for self-care in grief (or really ANY hard place in life):

  • Be patient with yourself.  There is no time frame for grief.  Each heart is unique.  Extend grace to yourself, just as you would to a friend.  Try not to take on extra responsibilities.  It’s better to allow for some flexibility in obligations during this time (even around holidays!).no timetable for grief
  • Listen to your body and your heart: If you need to cry, then cry. If you need to sleep, then do so. If you need to talk to someone, seek out someone who will listen. If you need to reminisce, then take the time. It is important for the grieving process that you go with the flow.
  • Lower expectations for yourself and communicate this new reality to others. You are not able to operate as you did before loss.  Your capacity for interacting with others, managing tasks and being available for the needs of others has been dramatically altered.  Own up to it, and let others know that it will be some time before you can shoulder the responsibilties you once did.
  • Let others know what you need from them.  No one is a mind reader.  While we who are bereaved think our needs are obvious, it’s simply not the case.  Communicate to family and friends how they can support you.
  • Accept the help of others. Understand that grief is hard work. It requires a great deal of energy and can be exhausting. Even though we place a high value on self-sufficiency, it is important to ask for, and accept, help from those close to you. Others careand genuinely want to be of assistance, but usually do not know what to specifically offer. In particular, it is vital to know who will listen and be supportive. Sharing your story out loud is one key to healing. And, remember that professional guidance is also available
  • If you need counseling, get it!  There is NO shame in asking for help. Get all the support you need. There are many bereavement support groups as well as counselors or spiritual advisors who specialize in bereavement counseling. Don’t hesitate to contact a medical and or mental health specialist if you have feelings of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts.emotions-faces
  • Accept your feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Sadness, loneliness, fear, confusion, anger—these are among the many feelings you may experience, and are completely normal. Emotions are often raw early in the grief process, but it is important to express them. Attempting to stifle feelings usually leads to an emotional outburst at an inconvenient time.
  • Face your feelings. The painful emotions associated with grief are a natural and normal response to loss. You can try and suppress them or hide from them all you want but in the end this will only prolong the grieving process. Acknowledging your pain and taking responsibility for your feelings will help you avoid the complications often associated with unresolved grief such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
  • Express your feelings. The most effective way to do this is through some tangible or creative expression of your emotions such as journalling, writing a letter expressing your apologies, forgiveness and the significant emotional statements you wish you had said, or art projects celebrating the person’s life or what you lost.
  • Keep a journal.  Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to validate and work through your grief.
  • Feel whatever you feel. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at God, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, or to let go when you’re ready. Your grief is your own and no one can tell you when you should be “over it” or when to “move on.”
  • Pay attention to physical needs. It’s easy to ignore your health when all you want to do is give up and give in.  However, it is even more important NOW to take care of yourself.  Eat balanced meals (set an alarm if you have to), try to get adequate rest (get medication if you need to) and make sure to get in some physical activity every day (set a timer if necessary).
  • Get physical exercise.  If you exercised prior to your loss, try to maintain the same routine. If you did not exercise prior to your loss visit your doctor before embarking on a physical exercise routine. Physical exercise can improve the way you feel.
  • exercise and mental health
  • Eat right and get enough sleep.  Maintaining a healthy diet and getting proper sleep is essential for functioning as well as you can. If you are having difficulty with either, visit your doctor.
  • Be aware of short-term relievers – these can be food, alcohol/drugs, anger, exercise, TV, movies, books, isolation, sex, shopping, workaholism, etc. Most of these things are not harmful in moderation but when used to cover-up, hide or suppress our grief they get in the way of the work grief requires.
  • Take the time to do the things you need to do for yourself.  When you feel up to it, engage in activities to which you feel drawn. It could be visiting a place you haven’t been to in a while, walks in nature, reading, etc.
  • Pamper yourself. Treat yourself well. Do things for yourself that are helpful like walks, being with people who are nurturing to you, and inexpensive activities

Grief is a lifelong process-a marathon, not a sprint.  

Maintaining space to do the work grief requires and engaging in activities and health habits that help me do that work is the only way to endure.  

physical mental well being